Comedy of Exotic Conflicts: Chinese Character Plays of Kyogen

By Yip, Leo Shingchi | Asian Theatre Journal, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Comedy of Exotic Conflicts: Chinese Character Plays of Kyogen


Yip, Leo Shingchi, Asian Theatre Journal


Kyogen, the traditional comical theatre of Japan, is well known for its humorous and satirical portrayals of medieval Japanese personae from all walks of life caught in conflicts stemming from everyday affairs. In kyogen, conflicts between the characters are key to creating comical actions and dialogues that amused the audience of medieval Japan. Characters dominating the repertoire include witty and defiant servants, idiotic feudal lords, shrewish wives, cowardly husbands, and incompetent Buddhist priests. There is also a less represented group of characters--namely, Chinese characters--that are featured in three plays in the surviving repertoire. The three plays--Tozumo (Chinese Sumo Wrestling), Tojin kodakara (The Chinese Man's Precious Sons), and Chasanbai (An International Marriage Problem), often labeled as "Chinese character plays" today, depict the complex relations between Chinese and Japanese people during the medieval era.

Although it is undeniable that the primary goal of kyogen was to entertain its audience, these three plays to a certain extent reflect the medieval Japanese populace's intricate feelings toward China and Chinese people. In this essay, I will examine how these plays might be treated as dramatic reflections of Sino-Japanese relations on the level of common people. I will propose that the plays touch upon the lives of Chinese immigrants living in Japan, and also demonstrate how various humorous devices derived from exotic Chinese elements are used for amusement. More specifically, this essay will investigate how performance techniques and strategies that are conventional to kyogen are flavored with Chinese nuances, particularly toin (Chinese sound), to induce a sense of exoticism pertinent to the foreign topics. For example, expressions resembling or sounding like Chinese language are frequently integrated into the plays to imbue an exotic atmosphere.

Conventional and recurring devices used in kyogen are employed or modified to amplify the humor and highlight specific themes. For instance, the plays follow the typical structure of kyogen, such as ending with the "chase off " scene that punctuates the stories on a farcical note. Each of the three plays also contains particular performance elements that highlight its specific themes. Tozumo incorporates sumo wrestling, a recurring device used in kyogen, to stage a lighthearted "battle" between the Japanese and the Chinese. Tojin kodakara's striking resemblance to the plot of the no play Tosen (The Chinese Boat) reflects kyogen's standard strategy of borrowing from no. Chasanbai integrates the performance of kouta (short song), a common element of kyogen performance, to illustrate the marital relationship between a devoted yet distressed wife and her indifferent and monotonous husband. Beyond examining the performance techniques and strategies employed, I will explore the social settings and the underlying cultural significance of the three plays.

Staging the Complex Attitudes toward China and the Chinese

By portraying the interactions between ordinary Japanese and Chinese people, the three plays expose the intricate attitudes of Japanese toward the Chinese within the complex sociopolitical context of medieval Japan. The plays reveal Japan's conflicting sentiments regarding China and its people, ranging from a superiority complex over China, to compassion toward its people, to the nurturing of a romantic relationship with them. In so doing, the plays might have served as endorsements promoting various policies and commentaries concerning the relations between the two countries. Tozumo features a Japanese man's confrontation with the Chinese in China and suggests Japan's belief of its superiority over China. Tojin kodakara and Chasanbai, on the contrary, depict Chinese living in Japan and illustrate Japanese sentiments toward the Chinese on a more individual level. A close examination of these plays should disclose not only the complex attitudes of ordinary Japanese but also the messages embedded in the plays regarding China and its people in medieval Japan.

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