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    EXPO 2005 AICHI
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transper_1pic.gif Under the Spell of Kyogen: Wolfgang Zoubek
Steven Ward and Ximena Elgueda

Text by Akiko Onodera; photos by Masatoshi Sakamoto

This yamabushi over 185centimeters tall cuts an impressive figure on the stage.

A tall, craggy-featured, unshaven yamabushi, or mountain priest, steps onto the stage. Resplendent in his ocher robes, he skillfully delivers his lines in the distinctive cadence of the Japanese comic plays known as kyogen. Laughter fills the theater at the amusing carriage of the massive actor.

The kyogen being performed in the noh and kyogen theater in Tokyo’s Aoyama district is Kagyu (The Snail), a classic piece written in the Edo period (1603–1868). The yamabushi, having completed his austerities, is on his way home. He lies down to rest in a big thicket. A servant named Taro Kaja, sent by his master to search for a kind of snail used to make a medication that is supposed to confer long life, appears on the scene. He has been told that this snail lives in thickets, has a black head, carries his shell on his back, and sometimes shows its horns. Taro Kaja, having never actually seen the snail, is convinced that the yamabushi, who seems to fit the description, is the snail and takes the priest home to his master.

The protagonist in kyogen is called the shite and the supporting actor the ado. In this piece the yamabushi is the shite and Taro Kaja the ado. The yamabushi flaunts his supposed knowledge despite being unlettered and, while posing as an ascetic, is actually driven by greed. Taro Kaja, meanwhile, is cheerful, likes to drink, is full of humor, and has a sly streak. Kyogen characters are comical and flawed yet lovable. The actors’ skill lies in portraying the characters humorously and entertaining the audience.

The part of the yamabushi is being performed by Wolfgang Zoubek, a 46-year-old Austrian. His day job is assistant professor in the Faculty of Law at Aichi University.

Zoubek encountered kyogen in 1990. “I first saw noh and kyogen in Vienna,” he recalls. “Even though I couldn’t understand the words, I found that I could enjoy the plays. I found the acting style of kyogen highly interesting and refreshing. Kabuki was known in Vienna, but kyogen was totally new to us, so I wanted to learn more about it.”

Vienna, where Zoubek was born and bred, is world renowned for music and the arts. In this city of theaters and concert halls, enjoying the arts was part of everyday life. He attended his first opera, Rossini’s Barber of Seville, at the age of five. This, he says, was his introduction to comedy, and he has been interested in it ever since.

While studying theater and German literature at the University of Vienna, Zoubek attended acting school and performed in popular theater at the 200-year-old Josefstadt Theater and elsewhere in Vienna. In 1991 he re-enrolled in the University of Vienna, this time majoring in Japanese studies and cultural anthropology. He also began studying Japanese. He earned a Ph.D. in 1996 with a dissertation comparing Viennese popular theater and kyogen. During this period he also began reviewing and translating manuscripts for a theatrical publisher in Vienna.

“One thing Western popular theater and kyogen have in common is the way the underdog triumphs in the end,” explains Zoubek. “In quarrels between a married couple the wife wins, and Taro Kaja wins over his master. On the other hand, one way the two genres differ is that in Western popular theater, even in classical pieces, the perform-ance is adapted to suit the taste of the times, whereas kyogen perpetuates the traditional performance style as far as possible.”

Zoubek came to Japan in 1996, and for 6 years he taught German at universities in Tokyo and Yamagata Prefecture. When he was at Toyo University in Tokyo, a colleague encouraged him to start studying the Okura School of kyogen with the master Sennojo Shigeyama, and he performed for the first time in 1997. Even though he now lives in Aichi Prefecture, he still travels to Tokyo twice a month for lessons.

He moved to Aichi University in 2002. At present he teaches German and comparative culture at the Nagoya campus in Miyoshi Town, on the outskirts of Nagoya. Having been brought up near the Vienna Woods, he appreciates the luxuriant greenery of his present surroundings.

His favorite nature spot is Korankei. This valley, tucked away in the mountains about a 40 minute drive from Miyoshi, is famed for its autumn foliage. Charmed by the beauty of the mountain scenery, with its seasonal changes and clear mountain streams, he drives out to Korankei almost every week. “Korankei reminds me of the Vienna Woods; walking there calms me,” says Zoubek. “The good thing about living in Tokyo was the many chances to enjoy films, theater, opera, and so on. But what I like about living in Aichi is the relatively few traffic jams and the easy access to both mountain streams and the sea.”

Zoubek likes cooking. In the last class before the summer vacation this year, he prepared Viennese cuisine for his students, including a dish using potatoes, bacon, and cabbage and a dessert using apples. The students accorded it their highest praise: “Mmm, good!”

“People associate Germany and Austria with beer and sausages, but Viennese cuisine has a wide variety of dishes using beef, chicken, and so forth. I’m thinking of putting together a cookbook to make Viennese cuisine better known in Japan,” he confides.

Zoubek has now embarked on community activities, such as public lectures on kyogen. Lured to Japan by kyogen, he is steadily putting down roots in this land so far from his native Austria.

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