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Arigato, Sensei!

Written by Kathryn Miller '09

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onegai shimasu!

“If you will” is a phrase spoken by eager Japanese students or kohai ready to learn from a respected master or sensei. Or, in my case, a greeting butchered nervously as I faced the terrifying task before me. A task that was, at that moment, embodied in Maruishi Yasushi, an amazing Japanese man whom I would come to call Maruishi Sensei.

Maruishi Sensei was my introduction to Kyoto, Japan, and the world of kyôgen theater, a form of acting that has been in existence since the 14th century. I was chosen by Holly Blumner, St. Mary’s College associate professor and coordinator of Asian Studies, along with students Zach Pajak, Ian Prince, Rachel Reckling and Judy Sellner, to go to Japan last summer to study kyôgen under the ASIANetwork Freeman Foundation Student-Faculty Fellowship. The fellowship was designed to give American students an appreciation of Asian culture.

Japanese theater is not typically familiar to those in the West. Basically, kyôgen is known for slapstick comedy, comedic class struggles and simple stock characters. Kyôgen actors wear traditional 14th-century costumes complete with elaborate kimonos and short or long pants, depending on the character’s class position. Kyôgen actors are taught the intricacies of kyôgen plays in childhood and continue to study them to very old ages. Learning from a professional actor is like having your very own kyôgen encyclopedia!

Maruishi Sensei gave us a learning experience that can never be replicated in an American classroom. The relationship between student and teacher holds much more meaning in Japan, and from the moment we started our first lesson we felt deep respect for this man we didn’t know and couldn’t understand. In the beginning of our lessons the language barrier was difficult to overcome. Though Maruishi Sensei knew that we were terrified, he also saw we were blank slates, ready to learn whatever we could about a form of theater that was so alien to us, so different from the Westernized style we were used to.

The first thing he taught us was the kyôgen walk. The walk seems simple: all you have to do is bend your knees and gracefully slide your feet across the wooden floor. Sounds easy, right? Try walking like this across a smooth surface for five minutes, and maybe you’ll get an idea of how my knees felt after two hours of rehearsal each day. As corny as it sounds, the pain was not only worth it but it was absolutely necessary. The walk has to be mastered before stock kyôgen movements for bowing, laughing, sleeping, sitting, opening a door, and much more can be performed.

Maruishi Sensei eventually thought we were ready to learn an actual play so he assigned parts for Iroha, a two-person play. In this short kyôgen play, a parent teaches a very impudent child the alphabet. I was given the part of oya or parent, Rachel played my ko or child. We were handed a script written phonetically in Japanese and told we had to memorize the lines in a matter of days. After taking one look at the foreign words I felt like running away crying. Through support from Professor Blumner and Maruishi Sensei, and repeating the beautifully lyrical words many times, I still didn’t really know what I was saying but I knew I could do it.

However, I still wasn’t sure what it was. Feelings of frustration and futility are normal for actors all over the world; but when you are trying to act in a different language there are many new obstacles to overcome. Luckily, Maruishi Sensei relieved us of these fears on one seemingly normal day. At the beginning of the lesson, Maruishi Sensei announced that we were ready to perform with the other students acting as the audience.  As I sat there watching my friends perform, I found myself laughing hysterically. I distinctly remember watching Ian and Zach reach the point in Iroha when the parent makes an empty threat to throw something at the bratty child who is mimicking him. I looked around and noticed everyone else was laughing too. The words and movements we had spent weeks learning were being pieced together to create theater. It was at that moment that we realized we were performing kyôgen, and we were funny!

One American cannot possibly learn and perfect kyôgen in one month; it takes Japanese kyôgen actors most of their lives to reach that goal. Maruishi Sensei didn’t expect us to reach high levels of achievement. He was willing to pass on some of the knowledge he has gained throughout the years, to which we were all so grateful. Even though there was a language barrier, we were able to connect to our kyôgen master through the language of theater and an eagerness to learn.

I find the trip has changed me. I am more aware of myself than I have ever been. My goal now is to spread what I have learned about kyôgen so others might appreciate this great form of theater as much as I do. So, I will end this as we ended each lesson with Maruishi Sensei, with a heartfelt thank you to those who made my experience an amazing one.

 

arigato gozaimasu!

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 Kathryn Miller is majoring in English with a minor in theater studies. She plans to pursue a career in theater production and public relations, and continue to promote the wonders of the stage to young people.