Kyogen: Classical Japanese Comic Theatre

A few months ago I was struck by the paucity of theatrical productions in Hiroshima and berated a few of my students on the matter. The pat answer was invariably “Ah, Japanese are very shy. My protests don’t seem to have had much effect on the recreational habits of the million or so “shy” Hiroshimites, but they did land me a handful of free tickets for a Kyogen performance on the noh stage at Aster Plaza towards the end of March.

The foyer was swarming with children enjoying their all too lengthy school holidays. (Don’t their teachers give them any homework nowadays?) The auditorium was packed with the same, and I quite expected that I would have to clip a few ears during the performance. Happily, I was mistaken. The actors engaged the children’s attention and drew as much laughter from them as from the adults.

Kyogen is the comic compliment to Japanese noh theatre, although the word “kyogen“, which expresses the idea of “the madness of language”, is also used to refer to theatrical perfomances in general, such as “kabuki kyogen” etc.

Origins Of Kyogen & Noh

Both kyogen and noh originate from an eclectic style of performance called Sangaku, which, like everything else, was introduced to Japan from China and came to be known as Sarugaku (“monkey business”?). Sarugaku split into hongei (farcical stuff, mixed with shinto performances) and nogei (tragical stuff with music and dance thrown in for good measure). These developed into kyogen and noh respectively.

A couple of kyogen were often inserted into a cycle of noh plays. In other cases, comic characters would appear on stage either together with the noh performers or during the interval of a noh drama to explain what was going on in plain Japanese. Japanese masks are often used in kyogen as well as in noh.

Characteristics Of Kyogen

There are only two or three characters in a typical Kyogen; a master (Shujin), and his servants Taro kajya and Jiro kajya, a warrior-priest (Yamabushi) etc. The master sports a pair of pyjama trousers (hakama), the legs of which are about two feet too long and trail in the dust as he shuffles about, body stiff and head erect. The two servants may be distinguished from the master firstly by their pyjama trousers which are rather on the short side, secondly by their bumbling gait, and thirdly by their yokel-like utterances. The warrior-priest wears a jazzy kimono, and drapes a gaudy set of pompoms (suzutake) over the top for no apparent reason. His hat (tokin) is far too small and is attached to his head with a shoelace or something. He has a penchant for black tights.

Slapstick & Farce

The two kyogen performances I saw reminded me of much that passes for comedy on Japanese television, except that while the humour tended towards slapstick it was also contained within a rigid discipline of movement and delivery which added tension and interest to the action; something which the flabby histrionics of Japanese television comedy seldom, if ever, achieve.

Kyogen plots are whimsical contrivances, farcical cameos rather than fully developed tales. In Busu, for example, a well known Kyogen which was one of those performed at Aster Plaza, the master tells his servants that he must go on business and that they are to guard a box which contains something called “busu“. There is a play on the word “busu“, which has nothing to do with the word “busu” that means “ugly woman”, but with its near homophone “rusu” which means “to go out”, or, at times, “to stay in”. The servants mistake “busu” for “rusu” which is hardly surprising because they are accustomed to take it in turns to “rusu” (go out) with the master. The word “busu“, however, is a cunning invention of the master’s to convince his servants that a cask of delicious sugar is really a deadly poison:

Taro: Didn’t you say “rusu“?
Shujin: No, not that. I said “busu” which is terribly poisonous. If so much as a breeze blows from that direction you’d end up dead. That’s how bad this so called “busu” is. Is that clear?
Taro: But, I am straightaway in doubt. How does my honourable master manage to take away the poison?
Shujin: Well now, there is a convenient chant.
Taro: Indeed. That is…
Taro & Jiro: … most fitting.

Thus the lower orders are gulled and the master proceeds on his journey. While he is away the two servants hit on the idea of using their fans to keep the non-existent fumes at bay while they peep into the “busu” box to satisfy their curiosity. When they discover that it contains sugar they scoff the lot and then tear the master’s precious scroll and break his tea service. The master returns, his servants cover their eyes and cry. They tell him how they practiced sumo in order to stay awake and guard his house, and broke his things by throwing each other against them. They tell him they thought it would be best if they committed suicide by eating the poisonous “busu“. Strangely enough it doesn’t seem to have done the trick and they cry for forgiveness as the master chases them off stage.

In Kagyuu (Snails), a Warrior-Priest climbs through the window of a house and falls asleep. He is awakened by the master’s servant. The warrior priest enchants him and they dance together. The master isn’t too chuffed, but is himself brought under Yamabushi‘s spell and go dancing off stage.

In Kyogen the parameters of everyday life and its petty conflicts are turned into comedy. The laughter which kyogen, like all true comedy, produces is based on knowledge, knowledge that the action shall be resolved into an eternal pattern by a contrivance of plot, music and dance. It is this contrivance which gives us room to laugh, which grants dignity to those who in this contingent life appear to lack it. What a pity kyogen is not more widely performed.

David Hurley
Hiroshima, 1994.


  1. To Whom It May Concern,

    I am directing “Midsummer Night’s Dream” for the Aurora Japanese Cultural Center in August of 2011 and I want to present this Shakespearean piece as closely as possible to the traditional Kyogen theater tradition. What elements of Kyogen theater can I integrate into this Shakespearean piece to maintain Shakespeare’s intent and utilize the elements of Kyogen theater to their fullest potential? I would like as much help pulling this project together as I can. If there is any information at all that you can provide for me in order to help me in this pursuit, it would be greatly appreciated! Anything spanning from costumes to lighting to set to props to characters is much appreciated.

    Thank you for your time,

    Mitchell Bennett

  2. Hi Mitchell,

    If you mention Kyogen and MND together I immediately think of the play within a play and all the related buffoonery. Kyogen was often performed in the intervals between acts of a Noh play, or between different Noh plays. One function was to offer light relief or comic contrast to the Noh play and another was to provide commentary on the Noh play. With that in mind I can see the court scenes from MND as being presented in Noh style and the forest scenes as Kyogen. Of course, the final act brings the two worlds together so you might work with an upper (Noh) stage and a lower (Kyogen) stage for the performance of P&T and have all the characters dance at the end.

    It’s worth noting that Kyogen underwent refinement as the years went by, so you could indeed stay completely within the Kyogen tradition for the whole play, perhaps referencing the two worlds to the earlier and later styles, the courtly world being closer to the later, gentler, more refined style, and the forest scenes to the earlier more boisterous style.

    Here’s a video of some Japanese school children learning about Kyougen. I selected this one as you get to see snippets from several different plays and also a brief glimpse of Kyougen actors teaching the children how to walk across the stage.

Comments are closed.