Not Just for Laughs

Not Just for Laughs

This month sees kyogen performer Tokuro Miyake introduce Members to the centuries-old form of comedy.

Samurai are usually depicted as stern-faced and stoic. But they did enjoy a laugh once in a while. One outlet was through watching performances of kyogen: comedic sketches based on farcical situations. Though Japan’s iconic warriors are no more, their era’s entertainment lives on, and Members will have the opportunity to experience it at the Club this month.

People often expect to shake hands with a man when they meet Tokuro Miyake. It’s a natural assumption to make from her name. After inheriting her grandfather’s title, she became the 10th successor to a male kyogen master in a family line that dates back 578 years to medieval Kyoto. She’s also Japan’s first full-time professional female kyogen performer, along with her older sister, Junko Izumi. Their brother, Motoya Izumi, is the 20th-generation master of Izumi-style kyogen.

Literally translated as “wild speech,” kyogen is often presented as comic relief between austere Noh plays. The sketches feature only a few characters, but they require assiduous training to perfect the elaborate gestures and vocalizations. Miyake and her siblings began learning the art form as young children, rehearsing on their home stage every day under the tutelage of their father. Her first stage appearance was at 3, and training continued for some 22 years.

“My brother had no choice in being a master because he was born a boy, but my sister and I had a choice of whether or not to do it,” says Miyake, 44. “Female performers are not so welcome in Noh theater—even today—because male actors are already facing a shrinking acting market.”

Many kyogen plays were written in the Muromachi period (1336–1573) and were performed with Noh pieces in the Edo period (1603–1868), officially sanctioned by the ruling samurai classes. Along with a repertoire of 254 pieces, Miyake’s family has a precious collection of stage kimono, masks and accoutrements handed down for generations.

Miyake is passionate about bringing this ancient Japanese art to a wider, modern audience, including audiences outside Japan. She has performed in English, and her Izumi family troupe has toured 13 countries, including the United States, where she held a workshop at North Dakota State University.

“Even though the language is different, the tradition and spirit of kyogen can overcome many borders,” she says. “Kyogen makes full use of body and mind to express laughter, so it’s really physically and mentally satisfying.”

Attendees at this month’s Women’s Group luncheon will be able to try their hand at kyogen after Miyake and her sister perform and discuss their craft.

“Kyogen is comedy, but it was originally conceived as a dedication to the gods and we mustn’t forget that origin,” says Miyake. “In my opinion, kyogen lies somewhere between ritual and entertainment. I don’t aim for laughs, but I’m very happy if the audience has a great time.”

Monthly Program: Kyogen Performance: Jan 16

Words: Tim Hornyak
Image: Yuuki Ide