Japanese Humour by Marguerite Wells

By Marguerite Wells

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They told actors what not to do rather than what to do. Perhaps because of this the present-day conventional wisdom is that early Japanese writers on the theatre disapproved of humour. Scholars, both Japanese and other, have gone to some lengths to explain away the fact that Zeami said that acting that caused outbursts of laughter 'must be vulgar behaviour'. There have been those who stated flatly that Zeami disapproved of laughter and those who tried very hard to prove that he never used the word vulgar, or never meant it if he did.

7 These jokes, though effective in producing merriment during a feast, serve no practical purposes. And yet, good writers often went out of their way to join in the fun . . We find the nose of Ying Yang compared to an egg whose end has been cut off by a thief, and the physical form of Chang Hua compared to the handle of a pestle. These loquacious writings are a disgrace to moral principles. 8 This last refers to the fact that criminals on the way to execution made it a point of pride to show their defiance by singing.

79 Unlike Zeami and Toraaki, the kabuki actors did not treat humour and vulgarity as necessarily connected. They were concerned about both but they were concerned about them as separate concepts. Perhaps this is because the kabuki actors were, first and last, practitioners of a popular genre and did not aspire to the heights of aestheticism that were the aim of Zeami and Toraaki. That the kabuki actors were concerned with aesthetics and artistic integrity is clear from their comments, but perhaps they also saw their art as existing on a less elevated aesthetic plane.

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