The monster that was made of fear

by Rei Sasaguchi

What’s a nue? A sobbing thrush? A splendid monster? Or the shattered souls of those excluded from society?

In a fascinating two-hour play titled “Nue” by playwright Yoji Sakate, a nue is all three. Presented in the small auditorium at the New National Theater, Tokyo, through July 20, Sakate’s production is inspired by a noh play of the same title by Zeami, noh’s 15th-century genius, and is intended to instill the philosophical spirit of noh into contemporary theater. Divided into three parts, the 47-year-old Sakate’s play has been produced under the direction of 56- year-old Hitoshi Uyama, the art director for the theater, and is performed by one kabuki and three modern drama actors.

The large thrush called a nue is also known as a tora tsugumi due to patterns on its feathers that resemble those of a tiger. Because of the strange cries it makes at night, it was feared by ancient Japanese who believed it to be a chimera with the head of a monkey, the body of a badger, a tiger’s paws and the tail of a snake. Zeami, (also called Kanze Motokiyo; 1363-1443) based his play “Nue” on the story of a 12th-century martial hero and poet named Minamoto no Yorimasa (1104-80), who was ordered by Emperor Konoe to kill a nue. The bird’s ominous cries at night, which resemble human wailing, were disturbing the emperor, who reigned 1141-55.

In Zeami’s play, the spirit of a nue appears to a traveling monk who appeases it with a prayer, leading the nue to recount how he was shot and killed by Yorimasa. Zeami contrasted the sorrow of the bird with its suffering as a monster.

In Sakate’s “Nue,” a 77-year-old Yorimasa (Takao Taka) awaits the arrival of enemy forces near Kyoto as he stands by a river with his young retainer (Murakami Jun) and a strange warrior (Bando Mitsugoro). Yorimasa confesses that he is trembling for fear of fighting because he has heard a nue crying in the dark, a bad omen. The warrior disappears and a boat arrives, occupied by a woman (Tanaka Yuko) wearing a mask and dressed in a ceremonial robe. She tells Yorimasa that she is the nue he killed during the reign of Emperor Konoe, and recounts how this turned her into a monster with the head of a monkey, the body of a badger, the paws of a tiger and the tail of a snake. The dismembered body of this nue was thrown into the river and has now appeared to predict what is going to happen that night. When Yorimasa aims at the woman with his bow and arrow and shoots her, she disappears exclaiming, “Now, Yorimasa is a nue!”

When the warrior returns and tells Yorimasa that the woman was his wife, Yorimasa shoots him, too, turning him also into a nue. The warrior announces, “Yorimasa is going to die tonight!” Suddenly hearing 300 enemy soldiers rushing toward him on horseback, Yorimasa stabs himself to death.

In the second part of Sakate’s drama, the nue returns as a mysterious woman (Yuko Tanaka) dressed like an itinerant priestess, who enchants two men. The third part is set at an airport in Vietnam and features Murakami, a middle-aged man (Taka Takao) reported missing while on illegal business in the country; his wife (Tanaka) who has come to find him; an employee of the man’s company (Bando Mitsugoro) who becomes interested in the wife; and a shady Vietnamese guide (Jun Murakami). The four meet in a striking final scene under the runway and reveal that they are each a different part of a single nue.

Water is essential to Sakate’s drama and is present throughout: in parts one and two, a narrow stage runs sideways, overlooking a flowing river, and in part three, in the final scene, the sounds of water are heard in the background with the occasional cry of the nue.

The four actors are impressive, handling their three different roles with enthusiasm. The most outstanding is 61- year-old Takao, a veteran from the Bungaku-za (Literary Theater), who delivers a convincing performance as Yorimasa in part one and a superb rendition of the middle-aged Murakami in part three with comical touches.

Bando, a 53-year-old kabuki actor of high reputation who played the title role in Masakazu Yamazaki’s “Zeami” at the New National Theater six years ago, is marvelous in part one as the warrior who is turned into a nue.

“This drama would be a real surprise to Zeami,” Mitsugoro says, “but he would probably approve of what we have done as we have produced such an exciting stage.” The current performance of Sakate’s “Nue” is certainly a tribute to noh’s most famous playwright, for Zeami is known to have written his version late in his life when he was having serious troubles with the people in power. The story he tells could easily be a reflection of his own forlorn feeling of living segregated from society, as if he himself were the nue.

Yoji Sakate’s “Nue” runs till July 20 at the small auditorium in the New National Theater; tickets ¥3,150 and ¥5,250; performances daily (except July 13) at 1 p.m., 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. For more information, call (03) 5352-9999 or visit ent.nntt.pia.jp