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Kyōgen (狂言?, literally "mad words" or "wild speech") is a form of traditional Japanese comic theater. It developed alongside Noh, was performed along with Noh as an intermission of sorts between Noh acts, on the same Noh stage, and retains close links to Noh in the modern day; therefore, it is sometimes designated Noh-kyōgen. However, its content is not at all similar to the formal, symbolic, and solemn Noh theater; kyōgen is a comical form, and its primary goal is to make its audience laugh. Kyōgen is sometimes compared to the Italian comic form of commedia dell'arte, which developed around the same period (14th century) and likewise features stock characters.


Kyōgen is thought to derive from a form of Chinese entertainment that was brought to Japan around the 8th century. This entertainment form became known as sarugaku and initially encompassed both serious drama and comedy. By the 14th century, these forms of sarugaku had become known as Noh and kyōgen, respectively.

Kyōgen provided a major influence on the later development of kabuki theater. After the earlier, more ribald forms of kabuki had been outlawed in the mid-17th century, the government permitted the establishment of the new yarō-kabuki (men's kabuki) only on the grounds that it refrain from the previous kabuki forms' lewdness and instead model itself after kyōgen.

Noh had been the official entertainment form of the Edo period, and was therefore subsidized by the government. Kyōgen, performed in conjunction with Noh, also received the patronage of the government and the upper class during this time. Following the Meiji Restoration, however, this support ceased. Without government support, Noh and kyōgen went into decline, as many Japanese citizens gravitated toward the more "modern" Western art forms. In 1879, however, then-former US President Ulysses S. Grant and his wife, while touring Japan, expressed an interest in the traditional art of Noh. They became the first Americans to witness Noh and kyōgen plays and are said to have enjoyed the performance. Their approval is believed to have sparked a revival of interest in these forms.[1]

In modern Japan, kyōgen is performed both separately and as a part of Noh. When performed as part of a Noh performance, kyōgen can take two forms: a separate (comic) kyōgen play, performed between two Noh plays (inter-Noh), or a (non-comic) scene within a Noh play (intra-Noh, between two scenes), which is known as aikyōgen (間狂言?, in-between kyōgen, kyōgen interval).

In aikyōgen, most often the main Noh actor (shite) leaves the stage and is replaced by a kyōgen actor (狂言方 kyōgen-kata?), who then explains the play (for the benefit of the audience), though other forms are also possible – the aikyōgen happening at the start, or the kyōgen actor otherwise interacting with the Noh actors. As part of Noh, aikyōgen is not comic – the manner (movements, way of speech) and costume are serious and dramatic. However, the actor is dressed in a kyōgen outfit and uses kyōgen-style language and delivery (rather than Noh language and delivery) – meaning simpler, less archaic language, delivered closer to a speaking voice – and thus can generally be understood by the audience, hence the role in explaining the play. Thus, while the costume and delivery are kyōgen-style (kyōgen in form), the clothing will be more elegant and the delivery less playful than in separate, comic kyōgen. Before and after aikyōgen, the kyōgen actor waits (kneeling in seiza) at the kyogen seat (狂言座 kyōgen-za?) at the end of the bridge (hashigakari), close to the stage.

The traditions of kyōgen are maintained primarily by family groups, especially the Izumi school and Ōkura school.

Elements of Kyōgen

Kyōgen plays are invariably brief – often about 10 minutes, as traditionally performed between acts of Noh – and often contain only two or three roles, which are often stock characters. Notable ones include Tarō kaja (太郎冠者?, main servant, literally "(common name) + servant"), Jirō kaja (次郎冠者?, second servant, literally "second son + servant"), and the master (主人 shujin?).

Movements and dialogue in kyōgen are typically very exaggerated, making the action of the play easy to understand. Elements of slapstick or satire are present in most kyōgen plays. Some plays are parodies of actual Buddhist or Shinto religious rituals; others are shorter, more lively, simplified versions of Noh plays, many of which are derived from folktales. As with Noh, jo-ha-kyū is a fundamental principle, which is particularly relevant for movement.

As with Noh and kabuki, all kyōgen actors, including those in female roles, are men. Female roles are indicated by a particular piece of attire, a binankazura (美男葛?) – a long white sash, wrapped around the head, with the ends hanging down the front of the body and tucked into the belt, like symbolic braids; at the two points (either side of the head) where the sash changes from being wrapped around to hanging down, the sash sticks up, like two small horns.

Similarly, actors play roles regardless of age – an old man may play the role of Tarō kaja opposite a young man playing master, for instance.


Outfits are generally kamishimo (Edo period outfit consisting of kataginu top and hakama pants), with the master (if present) generally wearing nagabakama (long, trailing pants).

Actors in kyōgen, unlike those in Noh, typically do not wear masks, unless the role is that of an animal (such as a tanuki or kitsune), or that of a god. Consequently, the masks of kyōgen are less numerous in variety than Noh masks. Both masks and costumes are simpler than those characteristic of Noh. Few props are used, and minimal or no stage sets. As with Noh, a fan is a common accessory.


The language in kyōgen depends on the period, but much of the classic repertoire is in Early Modern Japanese, reasonably analogous to Early Modern English (as in Shakespeare). The language is largely understandable to contemporary Japanese speakers, but sounds archaic, with pervasive use of the gozaru (ござる?) form rather than the masu (ます?) form that is now used (see copula: Japanese). For example, when acknowledging a command, Tarō kaja often replies with kashikomatte-gozaru (畏まってござる?, "Yes sir!"), which in modern Japanese one uses kashikomarimashita (畏まりました?). Further, some of the words and nuances cannot be understood by modern audience (without notes), as in Shakespeare. This contrasts with Noh, where the language is more difficult and generally not understandable to a contemporary audience.

There are numerous set patterns – stock phrases and associated gestures, such as kashikomatte-gozaru (with a bow) and Kore wa mazu nani-to itta sō. Iya! Itashiyō ga gozaru. "So first, what to do. Aha! There is a way to do it.", performed while bowing and cocking head (indicating thought), followed by standing up with a start on Iya!. Plays often begin with set phrases such as Kore ha kono atari ni sumai-itasu mono de gozaru. "This is the person who resides in this place." and (if featuring Tarō kaja) often end with Tarō kaja running off the stage yelling Yaru-mai zo, yaru-mai zo! "I won't do it, I won't do it!".

Lines are delivered in a characteristic rhythmic, sing-song voice, and generally quite loudly. Pace, pitch, and volume are all varied for emphasis and effect.


As with Noh, which is performed on the same stage, and indeed many martial arts (such as kendo and aikido) actors move via suriashi (摺り足?), sliding their feet, avoiding steps on the easily-vibrated Noh stage. When walking, the body seeks to remain at the same level, without bobbing up or down. Plays also frequently feature stamping feet or otherwise hitting the ground (such as jumping) to take advantage of the stage.

As with Noh, angle of gaze is important, and usually a flat gaze is used (avoiding looking down or up, which create a sad or fierce atmosphere, which is to be avoided). Characters usually face each other when speaking, but turn towards the audience when delivering a lengthy speech.

Arms and legs are kept slightly bent. Unless involved in action, hands are kept on upper thighs, with fingers together and thumb tucked in – they move down to the sides of the knees when bowing.


Kyōgen is performed to the accompaniment of music, especially the flute, drums, and gong. However, the emphasis of kyōgen is on dialogue and action, rather than on music or dance.


Kyogen is generally performed on a Noh stage, as the stage is an important part of the play (the space, the reaction to stamps, the ease of sliding, etc.). It can, however, be performed in any space (particularly by amateur or younger performers), though if possible a Noh-like floor will be installed.


In addition to the kyōgen plays themselves, performances include short dances called komai (小舞?, small dance). These are traditional dramatic dances (not comic), performed to a chanted accompaniment, and with varied themes. The movements are broadly similar to Noh dances. The often archaic language used in the lyrics and the chanted delivery means that these chants are often not understandable to a contemporary audience.

Kyōgen today

Today, kyōgen is performed and practiced regularly, both in major cities (especially Tokyo and Osaka) and throughout the country, and is featured on cultural television programs. In addition to the performances during Noh plays, it is also performed independently, generally in programs of three to five plays. New kyogen is written regularly, though few new plays enter the repertoire. As with Noh, many Japanese are familiar with kyōgen only through learning about it in school or television performances. As with Noh, many professional performers are born into a family, often starting performing at a young age, but others are not born into families and beginning practicing in high school or college.

In media

Kyogen is a concept addressed in xxxHolic, and is the title for the second episode of the anime. The English alternative used is 'Falsehood'.


  1. ^ ""First Noh & Kyogen Program Witnessed by Americans" in Boston December 7, 2004.". PRWeb. 25 November 2004. Retrieved 31 May 2010.
  • Brandon, James R. Nō and Kyōgen in the Contemporary World. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1997.
  • Kenny, Don (compiler) (1989). The Kyogen book : an anthology of Japanese classical comedies. Tokyo: Japan Times. ISBN4-7890-0459-7.
  • Richie, Donald (1972). Three modern Kyogen. Rutland, Vermont: Tuttle Publishing. ISBN0-8048-1038-9.
  • Sakanishi, Shiho (1938). Kyôgen; comic interludes of Japan. Boston: Marshall Jones Company.
  • Takeda, Sharon Sadako (2002). Miracles & mischief : Noh and Kyōgen theater in Japan. Los Angeles: Agency for Cultural Affairs, Government of Japan. ISBN0-8758-7188-7.

External links

Original source:ōgen

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