Kyogen performances are one of Japan's .nest cultural gifts to the world. Thanks to their affordability and the adaptability of the art to almost any sort of stage, more kyogen plays have been performed overseas than works of any other Japanese theatre genre, and their reception abroad is always enthusiastic. Neophyte foreign audiences, including many people who have wondered if the Japanese even have a sense of humor, are year after year rewarded with stage comedy that is not only understandable, but fun for everyone.
Knowing this, I put kyogen performance at the center of my theatre curriculum and at the forefront of my outreach efforts to audiences within the university and the community at large in Portland, Oregon. Two guiding principles have informed my approach to this work: authenticity and accessibility. These two principles often work together, but are sometimes in conflict. Reconciling authenticity and accessibility sometimes puts Japanese actors and event producers in a quandary when planning performances in their home country or abroad. As a professor of Japanese drama here in the United States who is using kyogen in college curricula and for educational and community outreach, I seek to resolve issues of authenticity and accessibility with various approaches to translating and adapting written and performance texts, teaching student performers, and organizing performance programs.
After six years of training with Kyoto kyogen master Shigeyama Sengoro (now Living National Treasure, Shigeyama Sensaku IV, b. 1919), I came to the United States in 1983 to teach Japanese literature and drama at Portland State University. Sengoro encouraged me to teach kyogen to students in the United States (not in Japan) and to assist in efforts to bring professional kyogen actors and troupes here to perform and to teach. I had seen kyogen performed in English in Japan, and had participated in English language no plays, so I recognized that performances in translation had the potential to be educationally valuable, as well as enjoyable. Now I have been teaching kyogen performance to undergraduates for two decades. Most of my students are Japanese majors, not drama majors. My classes usually have fifteen to twenty-five students, including a few native Japanese every year. In my regular ten-week Introduction to Traditional Japanese Drama course, students devote about a half-hour per week of class time (and much more homework time) to acting, dancing, and singing training, culminating in a public recital. Our regular audiences usually number between eighty and one hundred people, of whom about one-fourth are Japanese speakers.
In my student programs for the public I do my best to present a variety of approaches to kyogen. I try to present at least one play performed entirely in Japanese, with up to three additional plays performed in English or bilingually. I also teach komai (short dances), excerpted from kyogen plays, which are presented independently to the accompaniment of a student chorus. The chorus sings the kouta songs that accompany komai dances, either in the original Japanese or in English translation. My policy is that singing and speaking in Japanese should be as close as possible to the vocal traditions of kyogen; choreography and staging should be similarly authentic, whether the language of presentation is English, Japanese, or both.
Why perform in English at all? Obviously, accessibility to both students and spectators is the answer. Given the time I allot and expect for preparation, students with less than three years of Japanese language experience rarely perform well on stage speaking Japanese. Moreover, English language kyogen makes the art accessible to English-speaking audiences in a direct and immediate manner that no other method (program notes, supertitles, pre-performance explanations) can provide for performances in Japanese. Particularly in the case of dance, when audiences can associate lyrics and images instantly with dance movements, the dance comes alive in the way originally intended for native audiences in Japan. Komai are often performed briskly and include mimetic gestures, so looking at super titles above the stage invariably means missing gestures by the dancer. A pre-performance explanation of each movement eliminates the joy of personally recognizing or imagining associations between lyrics and choreography.
Audience accessibility has been an important goal for kyogen actors, writers, and producers over the centuries. Studies of the few kyogen plays for which multiple texts remain from the years 1400-1800 show that over the centuries master actors removed or shortened archaic material and added business that would appeal to contemporary audiences (Taguchi 1977: 80-100). This was done to some extent in the twentieth century as well, and it was the promotion of accessibility that created a postwar "kyogen boom" in Japan (Salz 1997: 271-278). Audiences bored with no found in kyogen a direct, approachable, and amusing form of classical art and literature.
My goal in the United States is to replicate the Japanese audience experience using English plays and lyrics, so first and foremost, translations and adaptations must be immediately comprehensible to, and enjoyable for, audiences with little or no knowledge of Japanese culture or drama. As a translator of plays and lyrics and producer of kyogen shows, I have encountered special challenges over the years--whether to include archaisms and literary allusions, how to best use onomatopoetics, how to maintain melody and rhythm in song and chant--and solving these problems while remaining true to our goals of authenticity and accessibility has taxed student and teacher alike.
Archaisms and Literary Allusions: The Case of The Moon Viewing Blind Man
In Japan televised no plays are always supplemented with subtitles, but televised kyogen plays never are. While difficult archaisms and literary references abound in no, the tempo of no drama is usually slow enough that many Japanese audience members can read play scripts and commentaries during the performance and not miss important stage action. Translated supertitles usually work well for English-speaking audiences at no plays, but the pace of most kyogen performances is too lively for this. In any case, Japanese audiences can easily understand kyogen plays without textual aids and are only occasionally and briefly brought up short by archaic words or phrases.
In our class plays, as with kyogen in Japan, communication between actor and audience should be clear, both vocally and semantically, and should not be impaired by archaisms or sophisticated literary conceits. In kyogen these are less frequent than in no plays, but they can still pose problems. Translating literary allusions in Tsukimi zato (The Moon Viewing Blind Man) demonstrates these challenges. This play offers a clear example of the need to depart from literal translation if one is to remain faithful to the Japanese audience's theatrical experience. Early in the play, the Blind Man asks his newfound friend to compose a poem. Yet the poem the City Man "composes" is a well-known classic from the Hyakunin isshu (One Hundred People, One Poem Each) anthology, the body of classical poetry best known to Japanese, both in the medieval period and today. What is at issue in the play is not the semantic meaning of the poem, but the fact that the City Man, however awkwardly, is trying to trick the Blind Man by claiming he is its true author. Contemporary Japanese audience members know that the poem is an old classic, and they laugh when they recognize it. Both contemporary and medieval audiences realize that the City Man is plagiarizing.
To an American audience the poem literally translated is nothing but a string of attractive images:
"When I gaze far out across the plain of heaven I see the same moon That came up over the hill /of Mikasa at Kasuga." (Koyama 1961: 352)
Only one in five million Americans would know without being told that the City Man is stealing someone else's poem for his own. The solution to this problem in literary translation is to use a footnote, but footnotes are harder to manage on stage. Detailed program notes explaining in advance such niceties, or explanations flashed above the stage in superscript fashion convert what should be a spontaneous and amusing experience into a pedantic lesson on Japanese culture.
In the original play the poem is presented slowly, line by line, and audience members enjoy discovering for themselves during the recitation that the City Man is an inept plagiarizer. Nor is the Blind Man fooled, for he responds with his own plagiarism of another, even better-known poem. In translating this play for stage production, my solution was to substitute English poetry and songs that I believe our audiences will recognize as having been composed in the past. In The Moon Viewing Blind Man I use a poem by Joyce Kilmer ("I think that I shall never see / A poem lovely as a tree ...") and for the second plagiarized poem, song lyrics by the Mamas and the Papas ("All the trees are brown /And the skies are gray ..."). I believe that directors should feel free to substitute any appropriate poem or "golden oldie" that they feel would be recognized by all or most of their audience.
By choosing free adaptation over literal translation I sacrifice the words of the original play for what I believe will be a more authentic and enjoyable experience for the audience. I realize that in so doing Western elements intrude into a Japanese play. This incongruity is certain to be amusing. When the City Man interrupts the Blind Man just before he says, "L.A.," spectators invariably chuckle. I of course realize that the amusement of hearing a sudden non-Japanese reference within a classic Japanese drama is not part of the experience of the original play, but unlike some purists, I recognize and accept intercultural incongruity and the amusement it affords is inherent in Japanese theater performed in English. After all, my actor-students are Westerners dressed in unaccustomed Japanese outfits, speaking and moving in an unfamiliar and exotic manner, in intended imitation of Japanese performers. To Japanese and Western viewers alike this incongruity is apparent and amusing, yet experience has convinced me that the attempt to enter the world of kyogen, by both actors and audiences, is not only of tremendous value in discovering new approaches to drama and recognizing shared human experiences in two very different cultures, but is also a lot of fun for all involved.
Vocal Rhythms in Dialog and Chant
The vocal delivery of kyogen dialog and monologues is in itself amusing and pleasing to the ear. For plays presented in English, the challenge is not so much translation of prose Japanese into prose English as it is in creating vocal English equivalents to the Japanese kyogen voice that approach the original variety in pitch, tempo, volume, and timing. The English text must be easy to understand, and a pleasure to listen to.
Enhanced discourse, such as word play and chants and incantations, present unique challenges to translators, directors, and actors. Translators must retain an awareness of the performance contexts in order to recreate for Western audiences the experience of kyogen word play and ritual incantation. In Kaki yamabushi (The Mountain Wizard and the Persimmons [sometimes called Persimmon Mountain Priest]), for example, and in other plays about exorcists and priests, it is essential to realize that for ordinary Japanese, both now and in the medieval period, their ritual intonations were in Japanized Sanskrit and unintelligible gibberish. When the Wizard (Yamabushi) in The Mountain Wizard and the Persimmons chants "i ro ha ni ho he do" (the letters of the Japanese syllabary in the order it was memorized in medieval Japan), what is funny is that his chanting sounds authentic, but might just as well be a loud, mumbling recitation of the ABCs for all anyone can tell (Figure 1).
[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]
Here transposition to our alphabet makes a lot of sense, even though this is an adaptation, not a literal translation. The Wizard continues to chant "Boron, boron!" This sounds like mumbled prayers, but "boron" also means "absurd, irresponsible utterances," so chanting the Japanese onomatopoetic word is less effective than chanting in English, "mumbo jumbo, mumbo jumbo!" which like "boron, boron!" has both semantic meaning and onomatopoetic potency.
To recreate the relentless flow of the Wizard's chanted delivery, I adhered to the syllable count of the original text and translated each phrase as a five- or seven-syllable unit. The last syllable is prolonged, and a breath is taken between each phrase, as demonstrated in the following excerpt.
Juzu to ippaaaaa See the Wizard's beeeads Irataka no juzuuuu A fine crystal rosaryyyyy De wa nouteeee You see they are noooooot (Kitagawa and Yasuda, 1972: 404)
Phrases of five and seven syllables are characteristic of Japanese poetic meter, and I found that when I chanted English phrases of approximately this length using kyogen-style chant delivery it was very close to the sound and feeling of kyogen sutra chanting in Japanese.
Translating Song Lyrics
Translating kouta song lyrics presents particular challenges. I feel that it is essential to preserve the melody and rhythm of the traditional kouta for authentic komai dance choreography to work for performer and audience. This requires a translation that preserves the syllable count of the original kouta lyrics. Of course, the syllable count may not be exact in every line because Japanese and English allow for different compression or extension of syllables when sung. The important test is in the singing--can the original melody and rhythm be maintained when singing English lyrics? Within this formal constraint, the principle I apply to the translation of dialog also applies to song lyrics: the lyrics should be immediately comprehensible to audiences.
Komai dances to kouta accompaniment sung in English have been surprisingly well received by audiences in Portland, despite the simple choreography of these dances. I think it is because audiences enjoy recognizing associations between lyrics and movements, associations only recognizable when one understands the meaning of the lyrics. Below is an example of a side-by-side Japanese/English kouta, a short and simple medieval love song. Both can be sung to the same melody, and use the exact same rhythm.
Fuchu Koko wa doko o zo to, If someone asks you where this moshi hito towaba. place is, this is what you say to him. Koko wa Suru u ga no, This place is an inn in Fuchu, Fuchu u no shuku yo. capital of Suruga. Hito ni nasake o It's called Kakegawa Inn, Kakegawa no shuku yo. the people there are oh so kind. Kiji no--me n dori ... There she is--the pheasant girl ... horori to oto itte Wings aflutter in she comes Uchikisete shimete. Now I will hold her in my arms. Shio no, shio no, ito So lovely, so lovely, so lovely is she. shiyo no. Itodo ito shu te, Now I am so enraptured, yaru se na a yaa. I don't know what to do.
The choreography to this dance is simple in the extreme. Dance patterns (kata) include walking in a circle to suggest traveling on the Tokaido Road to the post station of Fuchu, a girl running into the room and kneeling beside her lover with an arm gesture suggesting a pheasant flying, lovers embracing (bringing both arms to the chest), and stamping to suggest how excited the man is to be with his beloved. As simple and austere as these kata are, recognizing associations between lyrics and movements as they take place is a pleasurable experience, and of course impossible if one does not understand the lyrics.
Onomatopoetic expression presents an entirely different translation issue. Much of the physically amusing business in kyogen is accompanied by onomatopoetic verbalization, expressing human effort, or the sounds made by nonhuman objects or beings: doors opening (sarasara), pottery falling and breaking (garari chin!), animals crying out (crows: kokaa; monkeys: kya, kya, kya, etc.), water .owing, people snoring, eating, gulping down wine, fighting, lifting and carrying, and so on. Onomatopoetic expression is one of the prides of the Japanese language. While some directors and teachers may substitute "bow-wow" for "byo-byo" or "crash, tinkle" for "garari chin," the mime accompanying it in kyogen is so expressive that I feel no meaning is lost and much amusement retained in keeping most onomatopoetic verbalization as it is in the original Japanese.
Kyogen for and by Children
There is no better drama for outreach to children than kyogen. Several leading professional kyogen troupes in Japan, notably the Shigeyamas of Kyoto and Nomuras of Tokyo, have been active since after World War II, performing for and teaching workshops to children (Shigeyama, 1983: 40-42). With my students and with my son (starting at age six and continuing to sixteen), I have performed English and bilingual kyogen at elementary, middle, and high schools and children's museums from Portland to New York. I have also taught workshops for children, and, with sufficient rehearsal time, I even have taught children to perform complete plays for their peers. I feel free to make certain textual adaptations for productions for elementary school and younger children. For example, I do not like to present drunkenness and lechery to audiences of small children. When I taught Boshibari (Tied to a Pole [sometimes called Tied to a Stick]) (Fig. 2) to elementary school children I rewrote the text so that the drunken tomfoolery of servants inebriated with sake became a silly "sugar high" after child servants had stolen and drunk too much root beer.
[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]
The most significant change I have made in texts for presentation to children is to create interactive kyogen plays for elementary and preschool children. So far I have done this for just two plays, The Mountain Wizard and the Persimmons and Bonsan (The Bonsai Thief), both of which require the lead actor to improvise onomatopoetic animal imitations in order to escape detection by a man who threatens to kill him. In the interactive versions, after the first animal imitations (a crow's "kokaa, kokaa" in The Wizard and the Persimmons and the dog's "byo, byo" in The Bonsai Thief), the secondary character turns to the audience and says, "I can't think of any more good animal imitations to make him do, can you?" The children immediately raise their hands and shout out animals to help the actor. Coming up with animal voices and movements on the spur of the moment presents a new improvisational challenge for the main actor. I will never forget several animals that particularly tested my imagination--turtle, snake, rabbit, and elephant. After the main actor has improvised three or four animals suggested by children in the audience, the secondary actor reclaims the action of the play by saying, "Wait, I've just thought of an animal he'll never be able to do!" and the play reverts to the orthodox script.
My college classes and workshops have often presented Japanese/ English bilingual kyogen plays for older children and adult audiences. I particularly enjoy this approach for audiences like ours at Portland State University, which include both Japanese and English native speakers. Sometimes the difficulty of bilingual, bicultural relationships or marriages can even be worked into the script (the best example is Susugigawa [The Henpecked Husband, translated as The Washing River in this issue]), but in most plays the linguistic code switching is simply ignored by the actors. In bilingual plays the repetitive nature of kyogen dialog makes it easy for native speakers of either language to understand the action and most of the speech. Only occasionally do scripts have to be slightly augmented to ensure that everyone can follow the play. Long monologues are the chief linguistic challenge in bilingual plays--the only solutions are to allow portions of the play to remain incomprehensible to monolingual members of the audience, or to provide a summary, either in the program or as a preplay oral explanation.
The pleasures of bilingual kyogen are different from monolingual plays in either language. Monolingual audience members listening to bilingual dialog are repeatedly presented with a mystery or challenge, in the form of lines that are partially or entirely incomprehensible. They wonder what these lines mean, and their conjectures are followed immediately by entirely comprehensible speech that usually provides the answer. A bilingual play becomes an ongoing puzzle or word game that audience members become increasingly proficient at solving as the play progresses. The second pleasure of bilingual kyogen lies in comparing the vocal delivery of traditional kyogen, spoken in Japanese, with the delivery of lines in English.
For bilingual kyogen I tend to have actors speak in their native language, although advanced non-native language learners do fine, too. Rehearsals can be more difficult than usual if the actors themselves are not at least somewhat bilingual, because it requires monolingual actors to understand verbal clues delivered in a foreign language. I enjoy challenging ambitious fourth-year Japanese students with performance in Japanese, whether in all-Japanese or bilingual plays.
Producing Yearly Student Kyogen Shows in the United States
It has been an enjoyable challenge to maintain the energy and freshness of a yearly program of kyogen performances by rank beginners over a period of more than twenty years. To entertain audience members who attend year after year, I never present the same plays in consecutive years. To ensure authenticity, with very few exceptions I teach my students only plays that I have been taught by professional teachers in Japan, from both the Izumi and Okura Schools (Shigeyama Sengoro and his son Senzaburo, Shigeyama Akira, and Maruishi Yasushi of the Okura School, and Ishida Yukio of the Izumi School).
Several of the most popular "war horses," like Busu (Delicious Poison), Tied to a Pole, and The Bonsai Thief, find their way on stage almost every other year. Whenever I have more than a month in Tokyo or Kyoto I study with my several teachers, learning new plays and dances. I teach newly learned pieces to my students as soon as I can, helping to solidify my own knowledge of recently learned material.
From time to time I have attempted more challenging productions. I have twice taught and presented a large-cast, spectacular kyogen play, Higeyagura (The Fortified Beard), which requires a chorus and features ensemble combat dancing by an army of enraged housewives. Up to thirteen students can be involved in this single play. When possible I try to invite professionals to teach intensive performance workshops, then perform at the end of student recitals.
Program crafting, inviting guest teachers, and my own continued study are important for the long-term success of the program, but the most critical factor is the material presented at each performance. It has to be accessible, authentic, and skillfully presented. I need total student buy-in to the endeavor from the beginning of the class, and one of the best ways to achieve it is to show the students videos of professional performances in Japan and successful student performances in recent years. The students know that with hard work and dedication they can become good enough kyogen actors and dancers to entertain an audience. With this commitment, if I follow the guidelines I have prescribed above, and provide the students with accessible, authentic texts and effective instruction in kyogen acting and dance, I am confident that they will pass the test I give them in finals week--to entertain a nonpaying public audience with kyogen and komai. Audiences learn about Japanese humor and Japanese society, and all leave the show eager for further experiences in Japanese theatre. A few of my most enthusiastic students have gone on to explore Japanese drama in depth. This is all I can ask for from the endeavor of teaching and presenting student kyogen at an American university.
Kitagawa Tadahiko and Yasuda Akira, eds. 1972. Kyogen shu (Collection of Kyogen). Tokyo: Shogakkan.
Koyama Hiroshi, ed. 1961. Kyogen shu (ge) (Collection of Kyogen, v. II). Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten.
Salz, Jonah. 1997. Roles of Passage: Coming of Age as a Japanese Kyogen Actor. Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI (#971774, PhD diss., New York University).
Shigeyama Sengoro. 1983. Sengoro kyogen banashi (Sengoro Talks about Kyogen). Tokyo: Kodansha.
Taguchi Kazuo, 1977. Kyogen ronko (Thoughts and Theories on Kyogen). Tokyo: Miyai Shoten.
Laurence Kominz draws on twenty years of experience teaching and producing student kyogen plays in English to elucidate the challenges involved in creating authentic and accessible kyogen performances. The essay explains approaches to translating dialogue, poetry, song, and onomatopoeia for the stage, and discusses bilingual productions and kyogen for children.
Laurence Kominz is professor of Japanese language and literature at Portland State University. He earned his PhD in Japanese Literature at Columbia University and currently serves as Japan editor for Asian Theatre Journal. Publications include The Stars Who Created Kabuki: Their Lives, Loves, and Legacy (1997) and Avatars of Vengeance (1995). Kominz studies the acting and dance of kyogen and kabuki, and teaches these performing arts in his college classes.…