Izumi〜Kyogen actors in Japan
Five years ago, at the tender age of 21, Motoya Izumi became the twentieth head
of the Izumi School of Kyogen. Recognized since childhood as a prodigy with startling
leadership potential, he drew comparisons to Tokugawa Iemitsu, the third generation
Tokugawa shogun who led his family to unprecedented glory and fame throughout
Japan. Motoya shoulders the weight of history, his mission to ensure that his
family's centuries old Kyogen tradition continues to flourish in todayﾕs modern
world of video games and cell phones. But Motoya is up to the challenge, stunning
audiences with his sleek, original style, ensuring that Kyogen remains fresh in
the hearts of a new generation.
Keeping the Faith-One Man's Mission to Preserve a Centuries-Old Kyogen Legacy,
The small curtain at the end of the bridge rises and a young man in Muromachi
Period costume strides onto stage, his feet sliding across the floor in customary
Kyogen style. Suddenly the whole theater seems to have been transported back six
hundred years, into the heart of feudal Japan.
Kono atari no mono de gozaru!
The language is the same as that spoken by samurai in the Muromachi Period (1338-1573),
when Kyogen first appeared. As the audience members listen they are lured into
a hilarious world of wayward Daimyo, journeying priests, mountain bandits, and
the bumbling brothers Taro and Jiro Kaja. Characters introduce themselves to each
other, complete long scenic journeys in the blink of an eye (a staple in Kyogen
known as michiyuki), and burst out laughing at their own drunken foibles, aborted
amorous escapades, and other pathetic adventures. Kyogen is a form of traditional
theater that has kept its characters and audiences laughing for over six hundred
Today only two schools of Kyogen remain-Okura-ryu and Izumi-ryu-but several
different "families" carry on the tradition. Okura-ryu Kyogen is performed
by the Shigeyama and Yamamoto families, as well as by the Okuras. Izumi-ryu Kyogen
is performed by members of the Miyake and Nomura "branch families,ﾓ as well
as by the Izumis, who founded the school some twenty generations ago. There are
currently about fifty professional Kyogen actors in Japan. Since the art is passed
on orally from master to disciple, it isn't easy for amateurs to find training,
and the number of professional Kyogen actors remains small.
Izumi Motoya became the twentieth head of his family's school five years ago,
when he was still only 21, inheriting leadership of the 560 year-old tradition.
He appears to tower over everyone else on stage, but in real life he stands only
five and a half feet tall, weighs one hundred and twenty pounds, and has a slim
twenty-eight inch waist. He has the compact physique of a trained athlete.
Motoya tells others that as head of the Izumi School, he wants to be "a
master on the run." For those who live and work with Motoya, this is more
than mere metaphor. Motoya really does spend a lot of time running. Down the stairs
from the bullet train, through the lobby of the airport, across the concourse
at another station, leading a retinue of performers lugging seventy-pound suitcases
filled with costumes and equipment, he runs, runs, runs. Just behind him dash
his sisters, Junko and Shoko, also Kyogen performers, and his mother, Setsuko,
the family's producer. They may all be family, but whenever they leave the house,
they transform into "family" in a completely different sense of the
word - they become inheritors of a tradition. In public, everyone, even his own
mother, refers to Motoya as "s冖e," meaning, "head of our school."
Sisters Junko and Shoko are reduced to mere disciples. None of his family would
dare walk before him or take his place in line.
In 1999 the Izumi family performed on a total of 250 stages. In a single day
Motoya might have caught an early train out of Sapporo after a performance the
night before, made a quick appearance on a TV show in Kyoto, returned to Tokyo
to conduct an afternoon seminar, and then sped back once more to Kyoto to give
an evening performance. On one frantic tour the family performed on fourteen different
stages in nine days. A few years ago, when the schedule was only mildly hectic,
people joked that the family toured as hard as pro-wrestlers. Today, pro-wrestlers
joke that they tour as hard as Motoya.
My goal is that one day nobody will be able to say they havent seen Kyogen,says
Motoya. "And, I aim to succeed." Bold, youthful assertions like this
offer a glimpse of Motoyas boundless energy.
Motoya's fame is clearly growing. In 1998, Motoya became the youngest person ever
to appear in a popular Nescafe commercial series featuring members of Japan's
artistic and cultural elite. In the commercial, Motoya performs a scene from the
Kyogen masterpiece Sanbanso, and delivers the company's sales pitch. For People
Who Know What's Good.
Yet while Kyogen's popularity is soaring in Japan, the reality faced by the
Izumi School remains harsh. For example, the troop must continually balance the
requirements of medieval comedy with the limitations of theatres built for modern
drama. But tours through Europe and elsewhere have left them prepared for anything.
Recently in the northern city of Sapporo, Setsuko entered the banquet hall of
the hotel where they would later perform to inspect the temporary stage. Suddenly
her expression hardened. "Watanabe-san," she called to one of their
disciples, "Could you give me a hand with this?" As she spoke, she was
slipping out of her high-heels and stepping onto the stage. The hotel had erected
a Noh stage, not a Kyogen stage. The stages are almost identical, but there is
one major difference - in Noh, the thin planks of wood that make up the stage
are laid horizontally to the audience. In Kyogen, theyﾕre laid vertically. The
precise stage direction of a Kyogen performance can only be carried out on a Kyogen
stage of the right dimension. In moments the whole group started pulling apart
the stage. Soon someone realized that the walkway leading to the stage was missing
its railing. Setsuko summoned the event manager from the hotel and told him to
go to a florist and buy freshly cut green bamboo. But it's early winter, he said.
"Could you get us some two-by-fours? Any wood at all?" Shoko persisted.
"You can't expect modern society to conform to Muromachi common sense, so
we do the best with what we've got,"she explained.
Sometimes people ask why they try so hard. Don't they wish they had 9 to 5 jobs?
But Motoya straightens and gives his questioner a subtly impish smile. "I
was probably performing Kyogen in my last life, and I'll probably still be performing
it in my next."
The writer Hayashi Mariko once asked what the difference was between him and
other people of his generation. Motoya replied with a chuckle, "I guess by
'my generation' you mean young people?" You might say that he was evading
One thing is certain: Motoya's birth has had enormous significance for the Izumi
school. His presence has been like a breath of fresh air, transforming both family
relationships and the very nature of the troupe's style. Until his birth, there
had been no male heir to succeed as head of the family, so in a very real sense
he represented the future of the school. (Traditionally, women do not perform
Kyogen.) But Motoya was more than just a last resort, he was the Izumi family's
Tokugawa Iemitsu, a prodigy whose great future as a path-breaking leader could
be glimpsed from the time of his youth. Since his birth in 1974, he has been the
family's most precious treasure.
Motoya's training began while he was still in diapers, at the age of one and
a half. He started with the basics, learning how to put on the traditional tabi
footwear, how to say the formulaic greetings, how to sit in the seiza position,
and how to hold a Japanese fan. When he turned two, he began training in earnest
for his first play. All students of Kyogen begin by learning to play a monkey,
and make their stage debut at the age of three in Utsubozaru, dressed in monkey
costume. Until this point, the pace of Motoya's progress was no different from
that of his sisters and the children of other families. But from there on he began
moving on a different plane, that of a true prodigy and future leader. "The
head of our school acted in a second play on the day of his Utsubozaru debut,"
Shoko says. "It was a piece called Higeyagura, and he had a speaking role.
Even then his training progressed faster than ours."
As Motoya grew, the speed of his training only increased. Motoya performed Sanbanso
at eight; Nasunoyoichi-gatari at nine; underwent the secret training needed to
perform Tsurigitsune, a work known as the "senior thesis of Kyogen"
which only a selected few are permitted to attempt, at sixteen; at the age of
twenty he played the lead in Hanago. No one had ever succeeded in mastering so
many major works at such a young age.
Naturally people in the business were surprised, and a few insisted that he
was moving too fast for his own good. But Motoya's father, Motohide, held firm.
"If you're going to succeed as the head of a school, you have to master at
twenty what most performers learn at forty or fifty. Motoya can handle that, so
why shouldn't I let him continue?"
Motoya himself accepted his father's judgment. He remembers heading home after
his first performance of Sanbanso, thinking that he had now made the piece his
own, and would be able to teach his own children how to perform it when their
time came. At the age of eight, he was already thinking as a master.
But why was so much emphasis placed on his being the Izumi school's "born"
leader? The reason lies in the difficult situation the family found itself in
during the thirties and forties, when the issue of succession was a constant problem.
When Motohide became the head of the school in 1943, at the age of six, he was
adopted into the Izumi family from their main branch, the Miyake family. A generation
earlier, Motohide's father had himself been adopted by the Miyakes from the second
branch of the Izumi School, the Nomura family. During the Edo period Kyogen as
a whole had traveled a rocky road, having to find patronage from the ruling class
by winning from a warrior ﾒbut half a smile every three years. After the Meiji
Revolution, which replaced the ruling samurai with a new class of nobles and bureaucrats,
Kyogen abruptly lost its most loyal patrons. With troubles of this sort in the
background, the 18th head of the Izumi School, another adoptee by the name of
Motoyasu, decided to give up performance. A woman named Yuki, daughter of Motokiyo,
the 16th head, was then obliged to adopt a boy who could serve as the school's
19th head. Nomura Manzo and Miyake Tokuro, leaders of the Nomura and Miyake schools,
both at the height of their careers, each suggested that their own sons be selected,
but ultimately Yuki chose Motohide (his name was then Yasuyuki) from the Miyake
school, since that was the Izumi school's main branch. To summarize all the complex
events, when Motoya became the head of the Izumi family, he was the first non-adoptive,
truly "born" leader the school had had for three generations.
This history meant that Motoya's father, Motohide, was especially strict where
Kyogen was concerned. His desire to be the ideal master was only strengthened
by the fact that he had been raised and trained as the son of a branch family.
So in his interactions with Motoya, he saw himself more as a performer than as
a father, and saw Motoya more as the future head of the Izumi school than as a
It was only natural that as a boy Motoya spent 365 days a year training in his
art. And he never knew at what hour that training might start. He was often summoned
in the middle of a session with his tutor to go downstairs to the stage.
"As soon as summer vacation began," Motoya recalled, "serious
preparation for the big Izumi School festival would start. Even when our family
traveled, we would rehearse. At the spa in Atami we would turn our room into a
stage. When I was in elementary school I drew pictures of a few geisha from Shinbashi
in my class diary, and everyone made a big fuss. For me they were just some of
my father's pupils, but people didn't think that was the sort of thing an elementary
school student ought to be drawing."
On his way back from nursery school he would often stop at a Noh theater, and
once he started elementary school rehearsal frequently made him as much as two
hours late in the morning. For Motoya, all this was perfectly natural.
Of course, neither textbooks nor tapes played any part in his training. The
master would perform a scene three times, and Motoya would be expected to have
memorized all the lines and their accompanying movements. Whatever he learned
one day had to be perfected by the next. Whenever he erred, it wasn't at all unusual
for the master to slap or swat him with a folded fan. According to Setsuko, "Between
the time he began his training and the time he entered elementary school, the
head of our school was always crying, much more than anyone else. After rehearsal
I would always hold him on my lap and he would sit there listening to my heartbeat
until he stopped crying."
His father wasn't nearly so gentle. "If crying helps you train, cry all you
like," he would say, ignoring his son's tears. It was Setsuko's job to sit
on the rehearsal stage in formal seiza position, just watching. She would never
let her expression stiffen, no matter how terrible things got on stage. "You
can be sure that only Ms. Izumi's love for her son and for her family made it
possible for Motoya to endure all that," says one of Motoyaﾕs fellow pupils.
"She was always there watching, her face very serious, and every so often
she'd call out to encourage him, telling him to keep on trying. But that was all.
She'd never let herself look sad."
It wasn't that Motohide bullied Motoya. After all, he was always harder on himself
than on anyone else. When Motoya turned one and a half and his training began,
Motohide gave up drinking sake, Junko, Shoko, and Motoya all say that as children
they never saw their father's hair in waves, the way it grew naturally-in fact,
they never knew it was wavy-because he always straightened it with pomade. He
kept rehearsing with them until their bedtime, and was already in "master"
mode when they got out of bed.
"No matter how severe he was with me, I could always sense, even as a child,
that he wasn't really angry in an emotional sense," recalls Motoya. "Kyogen
is the heart of our family, you see. My parents and my sisters and I were always
focused on Kyogen."
Setsuko used to tell the children that when they visited their friends' houses
they should always try to see what other families found important. The three of
them would come back and tell her that a certain family seemed to value their
car more than anything else. "Really?" Setsuko would say. "Our
family isn't very concerned about cars, are we? For us, Kyogen is most important."
Then she would turn to Motoya. "And you were born to be the head of the school.
I know you have it in you."
Zeami, the legendary father of Noh theatre, wrote that the secrets of Noh should
never be conveyed to a clumsy actor, even if that actor was one's own child. Zeami
was himself deprived of a successor when his talented son, Motomasa, died at an
early age. Zeami found no recourse but to record what he had learned in writing,
in the treatise called Kyoraika. In Japan, where artistic traditions are passed
directly from master to pupil, the masterﾕs purpose and reward lies in finding
a successor to carry on his art. Motoya was born when Motohide was thirty-seven,
and Motohide was so delighted that he chose the occasion of Motoya's stage debut
to change his name from Yasuyuki to Motohide. Needless to say, this change was
an extremely big event, as it marked his official assumption of the leadership
of the Izumi School.
It was then that Motohide began working in earnest on his ultimate ambition
of performing all 254 of the plays in his school's repertoire during his lifetime.
Some of the plays hadn't been performed in generations, and with nobody alive
who had ever seen them performed, no one knew how to act the parts. It became
Motohide's mission to dig out the ancient manuscripts and secret commentaries,
and begin to reconstruct the dances on stage. Naturally, Motoya was his father's
Memories of those days remain fresh in Motoya's mind. "I remember that
when I was in third or fourth grade the number of performances we were doing suddenly
jumped. I also started acting in place of adults more often. My father told me
that even though I had been playing opposite him in rehearsal, acting in the ado
(supporting) role, I still had to be able to act in the main shite (starring)
role. Even when I didn't have time to learn it, I still had to know it."
Never in the history of the Izumi school have two masters of such talent followed
in succession. Performers as gifted and passionate and Motohide and Motoya are
rare enough to begin with. For a school to have two such leaders in succession
is truly unheard of. Motohide realized that he had a chance to restore the school
to its former glory. He decided to stage the entire repertoire of Izumi plays
himself, reviving pieces that were all but lost to the face of history and pass
down the full tradition to the next leader, Motoya.
Ironically, the new ascendancy of the Izumi school created professional jealousy
among the other families. After Motohide changed his name, joint performances
with the Nomura family became infrequent events. Worse, the building that had
housed the Miyake School for generations, along with its stage, burnt down. A
business started by Tokuro's daughter failed . . . and other disasters followed.
As a result the Nomura School, which already had more pupils and a greater range
of ages among its members-became even powerful in the Kyogen world. The Izumi
School was the oldest, but the Nomura School was bigger; and though Motohide had
been designated a Living National Treasure by the Emperor, people in other schools
only grew colder to him and his troupe. The Izumi School's problems undoubtedly
steeled the young Motoya.
In 1995, the 58-year-old Motohide collapsed on stage and passed away a week
later. After his death an influential member of the Noh Association began to pressure
Motoya to step aside in favor of someone from the Nomura School. The pressure
was both subtle and direct. Guidebooks published by the Association erroneously
indicated that the Izumi School was merely a branch of the Nomura family. And
though Motohide had named Motoya as his successor shortly before his death, certain
Izumi actors refused to appear in the July performance to commemorate his succession.
They insisted that they would only appear if Motoya stepped down. But Motoya didn't
bend. He commemorated his succession by performing the role that Motohide's had
made famous in Taue, and by performing his fatherﾕs all time favorite, Nasunoyoichi-gatari.
"My father used to say that in the first twenty years of my life he had
instilled in me a lifetime of our art. When I think back over everything now,
I think that having my father there beside me until I turned 21 was the best gift
he could have given me. He prepared me to succeed as the head of our school, and
to become an independent leader."
As head of the Izumi School, one of Motoya's most special responsibilities includes
taking care of the school's masks and costumes. The school is home to thousands
of pieces, dating back hundreds of years, each an artistic treasure. The 2nd and
3rd stories of the Izumi house in Itabashi, Tokyo is a huge museum-like vault
that serves as storehouse for these treasures of the Izumi family. Before each
performance Motoya enters to select the costume he will wear. After each performance
he returns the costume to its place.
Motoya says he remembers his father every time he enters the vault. "Whenever
my father turned the key, the tumblers made a distinctive click. I was so fascinated
by that sound. Today Iﾕm still overcome every time I turn the key."
There has been one change since Motohide's death. While he was alive, the family
always took different planes when heading to performances abroad, pejoratively
to ensure that the family tradition would continue if anything should happen to
one of the planes. Today the whole family travels together, even when theyﾕre
off the ground. "We've always been a lucky family, so I figure if we're all
together nothing will happen," Motoya quips. "But it's also true that
if something terrible happened and only one of us survived, and that person had
to try and survive in today's Kyogen world . . . it makes me shudder just to think
Motoya remembers how his father defined "tradition." Defend history,
remake history, and invest yourself into everything you do, he told his young
son. "The soke is the pinnacle of the art of his generation, says Motoya.
But there is a tension even in this role.
Motoya is carries the tradition of almost six centuries on his shoulders. But
underneath it all there is still a part of Motoya that is surprisingly down to
earth. He visited his first dance club when he turned 20, and at 22 put together
a band that covered the Japanese pop group Komekome Club at discos and dance halls.
But his mother and sisters didnﾕt let him get too carried away. They went with
him to watch the show.
Under the brilliant colors of their costumes, Kyogen performers wear white.
In Japan, white is associated with death. Actors need to be so serious about their
art that they are ready to die on stage. One mistake could mean the end.
Motoya runs along the blade of a sword called Kyogen that stretches out of the
dim past of the Muromachi Period into the unknown future. And as lonely as it
is up on stage, his style is so sleek and original that he continues to startle
and surprise the audience every time.