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An Evening of Kyogen in Los Angeles

Celebrating Japan’s traditional art with the world

Mansaku Nomura (center) in “Kawakami Headwaters”

An Evening of Kyogen in Los Angeles,” a series of events celebrating the traditional Japanese performing art of kyogen, was held at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and the greater Los Angeles area from May 5 to 9. One of the events included a live kyogen performance by Living National Treasure and Waseda alumnus Mansaku Nomura and his son, Mansai Nomura.

From left: Mansaku and Mansai Nomura

Literally meaning “mad words,” kyogen is a form of comical theater, characterized by its distinctive gestures, pacing, and vocal techniques. The events in Los Angeles were made possible through funding by the Tadashi Yanai Initiative for Globalizing Japanese Humanities, which was established in September 2014 with the generous donation from Tadashi Yanai ’71, founder and president of Fast Retailing. The initiative aims to build a network for international collaborative studies of Japanese culture and literature. Under the initiative, Waseda University partnered with UCLA, a leading center for Japanese studies overseas, and has held many events related to Japanese studies, including these kyogen events.

Mansaku Nomura reflecting on his life as a kyogen performer

Roundtable discussion among researchers

As a kick-off event of the series, Professor Carolyn Morley of Wellesley College gave a pre-performance lecture on kyogen, which was followed by Mansaku Nomura’s lecture on his life as a kyogen performer. Furthermore, Mikio Takemoto, professor of Japanese literature at Waseda University, gave explanations on the masterpieces to be performed on May 6 and 7: “The Owl,” “The Kawakami Headwaters,” and “Tied to a Stick.”

The day ended with the symposium “Japanese Theater and Theater Studies in a Global Age.” In the symposium, discussions among 20 researchers from the United States and abroad specializing in traditional performing arts, film, and theater took place. These discussions, which included Professors Mikio Takemoto, Ryuichi Kodama and Misa Umetada from Waseda University, became a rare opportunity for researchers from different backgrounds to come together.

On May 6 and 7, a kyogen performance by Mansaku Nomura and Mansaku-no-Kai (Mansaku Nomura’s theater troupe) was held at the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center’s ARATANI Theatre in Little Tokyo. Many people, including the Consulate of General of Japan in Los Angeles, Akira Chiba and his wife, Kazumi Yanai (Chairman, UNIQLO USA), UCLA faculty, staff and students, LA Tomonkai (Waseda Alumni Association in LA), and Waseda alumni living in the area, attended the performance.

Prior to the acts, Mansai Nomura explained what kyogen is, and five kyogen performers (Hiroharu Fukata, Kazunori Takano, Shuichi Nakamura, Ren Naito, and Go Iida) gave demonstrations. Mansai’s witty and informative introduction was well received by the local residents who gained greater appreciation and understanding for the art. The three masterpieces, “The Owl,” “The Kawakami Headwaters,” and “Tied to a Stick,” were performed in Japanese with English subtitles. The audience expressed enthusiasm by the actors’ every move, and during the curtain call, which is unheard of in kyogen performance in Japan, there was a standing ovation to commemorate the outstanding performance.

Mansaku Nomura in “Kawakami Headwaters”

Mansai Nomura (center) in “Tied to a Stick”

Standing ovation during the curtain call

Audience at the ARATANI Theatre

On May 8, a kyogen workshop was held for 40 fifth graders at El Marino Language School, a public elementary school which conducts bilingual education in Culver City, near UCLA. The workshop was done without an interpreter, but the five kyogen performers teaching the workshop were surprised by how much they were able to understand Japanese and how engaging the students were.

Finally, Yukio Ishida and Mansai Nomura taught masterclasses to the public and students studying theater, Japanese traditional arts and dance at UCLA’s dance studio on May 8 and 9. To mentally prepare the participants, the sessions began with cleaning the floor, and the participants learned greetings, gestures and vocalization techniques unique to kyogen. The participants were enchanted by Noh, where only movements and voice tell a story without any use of props or stage direction.

“An Evening of Kyogen in Los Angeles” became memorable for Mansaku Nomura as well, for he reunited with a staff member who helped with a Mansaku’s kyogen performance at UCLA 35 years ago. The program is a result of a special collaboration between