Pioneering Performers

Pioneering Performers

The Izumi kyogen family celebrates half a century of trailblazing theater while looking to the next generation of entertainers.

When Junko Izumi and her siblings began learning kyogen as young children, they rehearsed on their home stage every day under the tutelage of their father, Motohide Izumi.

Ever eager to expand the repertoire of the traditional Japanese art, the 19th-generation head of the Izumi school of kyogen staged adaptations of Shakespeare, Molière, commedia dell’arte and Greek comedy.

In many ways, the Izumi clan has continued to innovate. Last year marked a milestone for Junko: it was her 50th year performing the comedic sketches that serve as interludes between Noh plays. As the first female kyogen performer in Japan, she has been widely regarded as a pioneer in a male-dominated art form.

Her sister, Tokuro Miyake, who took the name of her grandfather, is the second professional female kyogen performer. In a family line that dates back nearly 600 years, their brother is Motoya Izumi, the 20th-generation master of Izumi-style kyogen. On top of that, Junko and Motoya’s daughters, Kyoko and Ayame Izumi, have also joined the family business.

Last year, family members participated in the World Assembly for Women, an event organized by the Japanese government to promote women’s empowerment. According to Tokuro, however, there has been no drive to promote and train women in kyogen and Noh.

“We used to have only two female kyogen performers but now we have four,” explains Junko. “We have a long way to go in terms of professional performers, but we’re seeing more and more interest among girls and women attending workshops.”

To some extent, kyogen has been changing with the times while trying to strike a balance between the expectations of modern audiences and the art form’s centuries-old traditions. Literally meaning “wild speech,” kyogen was known as the “art of laughter” and was presented as entertainment for the gods. Later, it was staged as comic relief between austere Noh plays. The sketches feature only a few characters but require assiduous training to perfect the elaborate gestures and vocalizations.

Kyogen plays focus on everyday situations from centuries past that can be enjoyed once the Japanese context is understood. In “Tsurigitsune” (“Fox Trapping”), an old fox pleads with a hunter to stop killing after his bushy-tailed family falls prey to traps. In “Kakiyamabushi” (“Persimmon Mountain Hermit”), a hungry mountain ascetic decides to eat from a persimmon tree belonging to a farmer, and the two engage in a war of wills involving supernatural forces.

“The language may be difficult for contemporary Japanese, but the plays reflect truths about human nature through comedy,” says Tokuro. “Even if you don’t understand the words, you can grasp the story through facial expressions, tone of voice and body movements.”

Many kyogen pieces were written in the Muromachi period, more than 450 years ago, and were performed alongside Noh plays in the Edo period, officially sanctioned by the ruling samurai. Along with a repertoire of some 250 pieces, the Izumi family—one of two main clans of kyogen performers in Japan—has a precious collection of stage kimono, masks and accoutrements that has been handed down for generations.

Even with the importance of preserving this tradition, there has been room for innovation, with new plays performed and efforts to address kyogen’s gender imbalance.

“Our father, Motohide Izumi, encouraged my sisters to become performers because there weren’t any prohibitions on women participating in kyogen,” Motoya says. “Furthermore, it’s not as if there’s a physical strength requirement that would make it just for men. He believed that what is important in kyogen is not the gender of the performer, but the ability to touch the hearts of audience members by bringing to life characters that have continued in kyogen for 600 years.”

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the Izumi family was staging about 60 performances a year for young people throughout Japan. They have also introduced kyogen at such venues as the US Embassy in Tokyo, as well as in 14 countries, performing in Japanese, English and Spanish.

At this month’s TAC Talk, the three siblings and their 82-year-old mother, Setsuko Izumi, will introduce Members to the theater form—one more step in the family’s quest to keep the tradition alive while imbuing it with new vitality.

“Japan has not done well in terms of its ranking in international gender equality,” says Junko. “But even in the field of culture, I would like women and men to join hands and create something wonderful that resonates with audiences.”

TAC Talk: The Art of Kyogen
April 13 | 7–8pm

Words: Tim Hornyak
Top Image of (l–r) Tokuro Miyake, Motoya Izumi and Junko Izumi: Yuuki Ide

April 2023