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Searching to define difficult, elusive concept

by David Burleigh

The title of this book is exquisite, while the cover illustration is of something else, different yet just as exquisite. This is appropriate because the aesthetic concept that the book considers is not just beautiful, but elusive and difficult to define.

SNOW IN A SILVER BOWL: A Quest for the World of Yugen, by Hiroaki Sato. Red Moon Press, 2013, 114 pp., $12 (paperback)

With his long experience of translating Japanese poetry, and writing about it, Hiroaki Sato makes this essay on the subject into a ruminative journey, rather than a prescriptive list. He begins by asking friends who are knowledgeable for examples of yugen, which include images from funerals, music, lines of poetry and even “nothing at all.”

Returning then to the origins of the concept, in China and Chinese characters, he confirms the elusiveness of the idea: something ineffable, remote and because of its remoteness, subtle, hazy, hard to put in words, even if it is recognizable to those who understand. Its most immediate association is with noh drama, which is not dramatic.

The costumes of noh, as Sato rightly says, are richly patterned brocade, colorful and costly, which seems to belie the faint effects hankered after here. But the drama is also poetic, and therein can be found clues to the aesthetic quality that the term “yugen” encapsulates. There is little or no action in a noh play, and whatever slight happening occurs is a late reverberation of something else that took place a long time before.

Is yugen, then, a longing, a memory, a dream?

It began to be defined around the 10th century, in poems that Sato includes, and yet, while natural imagery may suggest it, it remains “an overtone that doesn’t manifest itself in words.” For some, the bright shade of cherry blossom is its antithesis, though the great dramatist of noh, Zeami Motokiyo, used this very term, “hana” (flower), to describe it.

The qualities ascribed to yugen blur later into others like wabi and sabi (loneliness and desolation), or omokage (suggestiveness), all of which Sato evokes in his discussion. It can be found in fading, emptiness, even the color white, while it may also sometimes be filled with a lost, or even nascent, expectation. In the practice of noh all these converge.

The qualities that poetry develops there combine with stories about the poets, or else tales of the characters, particularly unhappy women, in “The Tale of Genji,” to provide subjects for the masked drama of noh. Sato details much of this later in the book, and adds some illustrations, the last of them the ¥2,000 bill issued to commemorate the Group of Eight conference in Okinawa, and now elusive, too.

Occasional references in the book to South American poets reminded me of the Spanish concept of duende, which is darker, tragic, and essentially conceived as black. But it shares with yugen a sense of touching some essential spirit, conveyed in the performance of an art (dance, music, poetry) that cannot be explained in black and white.

This is an engaging little volume, the fruit of long consideration.

David Burleigh comes from the north of Ireland, teaches and writes, and has lived in Tokyo for more than 30 years.