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Kyogen Theater: The Art of Laughter

Izumi Junko and Miyake Tokuro of the Izumi School of Kyogen from Japan demonstrate performance techniques.

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Performed on a simple stage, Kyogen (literally “wild speech”) first developed in the 1300s. 

Noh is an elegant, highly stylized form of chanted dance-drama. It takes its themes from classical literature and history, and examines the inner feelings of real, living characters or portrays more fantastical stories about ghosts, demons, and deities. Kyogen developed alongside Noh, and is a farcical, slapstick-infused theater. Kyogen actors performed during interludes between Noh performances, providing comic relief, but now Kyogen is also presented independent of Noh.

Masks are used in both arts, but to different effect. In Noh, which has about sixty types of masks, all actors (except child actors and those playing actual living men) wear a mask. Most Kyogen characters, primarily nameless everyday people, perform without a mask. Kyogen actors use facial expressions to hilarious effect. Kyogen masks, of which there are about twenty types, were created for additional comic effect; they are also used for animal roles.

Both of these dramatic forms were highly favored by the samurai elite from their beginnings. The major category of Noh plays, featuring stories about warrior heroes, must have resonated with reallife warriors.

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