I tend to focus on Japan Society’s film program, but it’s far more than just a cinema; it’s a full-on cultural enrichment center, featuring language classes, art exhibitions, and panel discussions on a wide variety of topics. If one positive thing has arisen from the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, it is that all of these offerings are now more readily accessible to the public. To wit: until December 31, you can register to view a pair of kyogen performances online—for free! (Or, if you so desire, on a “pay-what-you-want” basis—I highly recommend dropping five dollars to support the organization.)
The “About” page describes kyogen as a sort of comedic counterpart to Noh theater… and that was pretty much all I knew going in. Fortunately, director/star Mansai Nomura recorded a brief introduction to properly contextualize the plays for us ignorant foreigners, using such easily recognizable touchstones as Tom and Jerry and The Marx Brothers. Indeed, both shows are biting social satires revolving around the oft-antagonistic relationship between a tyrannical master and a bumbling servant. Comparing the material to vaudevillian slapstick and classic cartoons isn’t merely an apt observation, however; it helps to clarify what exactly is intended to be funny beneath the traditional style of acting, which comes off as stilted and unnatural to American sensibilities.
Despite my lack of familiarity with kyogen, I greatly enjoyed Shimizu and Kagami-kaja—particularly the latter (a modern piece commissioned by Nomura himself), which effortlessly shifts from humor to horror as a hapless servant drunkenly dances with his own “reflection” after it emerges from a possessed mirror. The experience was entertaining and educational in equal measure.
I’d expect nothing less from Japan Society.