In passing on Kyōgen, a style of Japanese comic theatre whose tradition reaches back about 600 years, Nomura Mansai has not the easiest legacy to fulfill. While his family name ranks several “living national treasures“, Mansai’s telegenic, androgynous appearance and acting skills granted him many roles outside the Nō stage, on Japanese TV and cinema, making him one of the most well known and beloved artists in the country.
“Kyōgen Cyborg” (2001) is a collection of short essays and annual updates on his professional life from 1987 to 2000. In the introduction, Mansai starts with the analogy of digital technology to explain Kyōgen performance. Here repetition and imitation resemble the installation of software on the hardware that is the human body. The form, kata, or posture, kamae, are in a sense “digital”, because they performed by the human body like a program. For example, when a character laughs in Kyōgen, he uses the fixed kata of laughing and produces the desired movement and voice, instead of trying to reproduce authentic feelings from inside. Mansai explores the different body parts used in Kyōgen as if examining the eponymous performing cyborg. While the face usually remains expressionless and conveys emotion mostly by angle and voice, the whole body is turned into an art object and shifts in parallel movements through the space of the Nō stage. If performed on the screen, Kyōgen would seem almost avant-garde, Mansai points out, adding that it would probably look less old fashioned in 20 years than the Angura theatre, the underground theatre movement of the 60s and 70s which used to be at the forefront of artistic expression.
The language used in Kyōgen, while still close to contemporary Japanese, remains in total obscure to the modern ear in terms of word choice and its vivid, melodic intonation. Explanations are necessary to understand the comedic sketches, but the silliness of its protagonists is universal. The phrase marking the beginning of almost every Kyōgen sketch, is: “Kono atari no mono de gozaru” (I’m from this place). Mansai elaborates that there was no TV in the Muramachi era (1336–1573) , so people did not know what the rich and the beautiful looked like. But everyone knows a Tarōkaja, the Everyman of Kyōgen, even today, from New York to Leningrad, which Mansai visited to perform.
Having spend an exchange year in England in 1994 as a student – Mansai visited the Royal Shakespeare Company during his stay – he effortlessly pulls examples from Western theatre and art. Looking at the deformed, simplistic design and pattern of Kyōgen costumes, he cannot helps but think of Andy Warhol’s Pop art. His Kyōgen dance performance of Ravel’s “Bolero” at the Setagaya Public theatre is still one of the most astounding things I have ever seen. In reflecting on Japanese identity and Japaneseness, he explicitly does not want to be seen as an advocate of the the right wing, and enriches “traditional” art with new impulses.
A book with Nomura Mansai on its cover would sell in Japan regardless of the content. Yet, these roughly 200 pages reveal insights and reflections of an artist who is as wellversed in Kyōgen as in modern performing arts, there is hardly any superfluous line and above all, it is well written.
Purchased at: the 59th “Kyōgen gozaru no Za” Hōshō Nō stage in Suidōbashi
Recommended to: Anyone remotely interested in performing arts.
Trivia: Nomura Mansai played the blind Tsurumaru in Kurosawa Akira’s “Ran” (1985) and was the actor moving Godzilla in Anno Hideaki’s “Shin Gojira” (2016). He will be Chief Executive Creative Director for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games Opening and Closing ceremonies.