Thursday, October 16, 2008

Impressions of Kyogen

The Japanese Kyogen is the traditional form of comedy that evolved out of the ancient Noh (Nogaku) tradition in Japan. The noh was a more seriously Zen depiction of the spiritual world and its influence on people. The goal of the master actors was to create a unity of spirit with the audience, sort of like a collective meditation. Due to the level of discipline to enter this realm of "no mind," there was a need to take a break from the rigors of this seriousness. Interspersed between Zen mind flower scenes of Noh one would find the mildly hilarious antics of the Kyogen. Kani Yamabushi, otherwise known as Crabmask, is a good example of this comic relief. It is a portrayal of a self righteous priest and troubadour who find themselves in the presence of a crab demon. The play begins with the priest and commoner moving about in a faux horse stance about the stage. The horse stance is a martial arts position typically used for meditation and cultivating ki.(energy in Japanese, aka, chi in Chinese). However, the two goofs have their feet turned out instead of facing parallel, and are raising their legs up and down, apparently imitating the way a crab moves about. This occurs before the crab spirit even appears. When the crab appears, he is in horse stance, bobbing up and down, with his arms positioned above his head like he is doing a Kata. The priest like character gets caught by the crab and the onlooker attempts to come to his rescue. All of the characters scuttle about like three bound up crabs. The Crab shows his triumph over the other two, and gets over on both in the end. The demon has succeeded in possession of both, especially the invincible priest. This play was effective in inducing laughter because it is absolutely silly. The tone of voices used by the priest and troubadour were loud and drawn out which serves to make the audience think that perhaps they had drank way too much Saki. This scenario could be reflective of what happens when the priest and common person indulge in spirits too much.
Kamabara appears to be a lovers quarrel. There is a shrew of a woman dressed in white with a spear chasing around her insubordinate mate, threatening to beat him to death. The other guy is stuck in the middle and attempting to mediate between the two. This scenario goes on until the mediator chases the shrew off the stage. The rest of the play is a soliloquy of the heartbroken lover threatening to kill himself, which turns into a futile and hilarious attempt to kill himself by tying a knife to a post (a tree) so he can fall into it. The soliloquy is melodramatic which makes it funny in a wiry way. I never really burst out laughing like in crab mask, but rather grinned the whole way through it. The soliloquy was a great tool for the lover to process his hurt which ended up turning into anger at the woman, for he decided he would kill her instead. As he exits the stage, one is given the impression he is hallucinating. This play turns a serious lovers quarrel into a farce. The Shakespearean Soliloquy served as a way for the viewer to get insight into the character's innermost emotions. This play reminded me a lot of Hamlet. "To be or not to be, that is the question," from the deeply serious Hamlet is analogous to the line from the farcical Kamabara ," A man is a man even if he is made of bundles and bundles of worthless straw." The Soliloquy in Kambara was likewise an opportunity for the character to vent his feelings and move past the desire to kill himself. This play is turning a possible real life tradgedy into a comedy. Kyogen is healing because if one can find humor in serious situations, life is easier.


Anonymous said...

OMG you wrote a fantastic narrative of both plays! You managed to make these "simple" play so much deeper!

Thanks for the info on the horse stance and martial arts -- did you research this for the post or did your Reiki knowledge come in handy? Later when you suggested that they drank too much sake, it could be true, and that makes the play funnier and provides some explanation.

Gina said...

I'm with Jenny! Knowing about the horse stance and how they didn't get it right really is good information. I just thought they were imitating the crab. And I hadn't thought about the demon crab "possessing" them, but the physical attachment could be a metaphor for a spiritual attachment, since the priest was pompous and not what one thinks of as spiritual.

This was great, Laura!

Lachlan said...

HI Laura! After seeing Kani Yamabushi, I was wondering to myself if the more "serious" Noh priest portrayals became an easy thematic sidekick of joking-about within Kyogen productions with the example of a farcical, vain mountain-priest in Crabmask? And... how that worked out the first times with being placed in between the Noh plays, hmmm...

Great to see that even the most serious of things can be laughed at, laughed along with in Japanese culture in appropriate settings like the Kyogen Theater as in the spiritual, relationship troubles and death wishes when taken out of their true context- tragedies into comedy as you said.

Enjoyed your post. Best, Lachlan

Laura Church said...

Dear Jenny, Gina, and Lachlan,
I appreciate your comments, thank you! The horse stance knowledge comes from my Martial arts training in Tai Chi Chuan, so after much practice and encouragement from my Sifu (Chinese equivalent of Sensei, which is highly esteemed teacher in the Japanese traditions), I know the correct position of the feet!! ha ha! The Sake thing came about because of my viewing of the Drunken Master with Jackie Chan-Lachlan, you should have a look at this classic martial arts movie since you appreciate Jackie's humor and skill!!! Drunken style Kung-Fu is notoriously cool because the more relaxed one is the better the skill!! I will post a horse stance pic of me so you know what it sorta looks like, I am still working on it!