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“Life is a lying dream, he only wakes who casts the world aside.” — Zeami Motokiyo (1363-1443)

The theater par excellence of “the world cast aside” is noh. Its roots are in 14th-century Japan. Its greatest practitioner — as writer, performer and theorist — is said to have been Zeami Motokiyo, who wrote, “A man’s life has an end, but there is no end to the pursuit of noh.”

Stately, stylized noh arose from primitive, rollicking ancestors — sarugaku (monkey music) and dengaku (rural music). Two qualities in particular define it: yūgen (mystery) and monomane (imitation).

Think, Zeami says, of “a white bird with a flower in its beak.” That’s yūgen. Of monomane he says: “In imitation there should be a tinge of the ‘unlike.’ For if imitation be pressed too far, it impinges on reality and ceases to give an impression of likeness. If one aims only at the beautiful, the ‘flower’ is sure to appear.”

That life isn’t always flower-like, Zeami well knew: “If ghosts are terrifying, they cease to be beautiful. For the terrifying and the beautiful are as far apart as black and white.”

In terror versus beauty, beauty wins. Let life be terrifying if it must be, or ugly as it so often is. What is life? “A lying dream.” Reality is something else — real; therefore, Zeami seems to be saying, reality is beautiful; beauty itself. Monomane must imitate beauty, not life — not to escape reality but to attain it.

Noh had august patronage. Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (ruled 1368-94) had a fine eye for fine art. He took young Zeami under his wing. A contemporary diarist recorded his disgust: “For some while Yoshimitsu has been making a favorite of a sarugakuboy from Yamato, sharing the same meat and eating from the same vessels. These sarugaku people are mere mendicants, but he treats them as if they were Privy Counselors.”

Dance and music are noh’s essential ingredients. The spoken word is peripheral. A play that takes five minutes to read can take two hours to perform.

Two warriors, slayer and slain, meet on the former battlefield as priest and ghost. Zeami’s “Atsumori” opens with the priestly denial of life’s reality quoted earlier. He introduces himself: “I am Kumagai no Naozane. … I have left my home and call myself the priest Rensei; this I have done because of my grief at the death of Atsumori, who fell in battle by my hand” at Ichinotani — where he is bound, “to pray for the salvation of Atsumori’s soul.”

His slow dance across the stage is the journey. “I have come so fast that I am here already. … But listen! I hear the sound of a flute… .” The flutist, in appearance “a young reaper,” is in fact the ghost of Atsumori. The chorus chants the narrative as the two men dance and mime. Atsumori, about to fall on the priest with uplifted sword, abruptly draws back. Prayer has quenched his thirst for vengeance, “so that,” chants the chorus, “they shall be reborn together on one lotus.” The otherworldly ending is typical. Buddhist enlightenment descends like a closing curtain.

It does so as well in “Sotoba Komachi,” a play by Zeami’s father, Kanami Kiyotsugu (1333-84), traditionally considered the originator of noh. “Sotoba” is the Japanese rendering of the Sanskrit “stupa,” a Buddhist reliquary. Ono no Komachi (c. 825-900) — poet, lover, beauty, hag; all life’s gifts were hers, along with one curse, her undoing: pride. We meet her here — a withered, wilted ruin, “old by a hundred years,” “grown loathsome even to sluts,” she who once “spoke with the voice of a nightingale that has sipped the dew.”

Her lovers were legion; she mocked them, spurned them. One who courted her was promised her favors, on the condition that he first come to her 100 times, through rain, snow, sleet or hail. He made the journey 99 times, dying on the 100th. Her wretched old age is her just punishment.

She reposes, in the course of her endless, aimless, homeless wandering, on a sacred stupa, not knowing it for such. A priest appears and rebukes her. She defies him; they argue Buddhist doctrine, each trying to one-up the other. Somehow, as the argument proceeds — it happens frequently in noh — their identities seem to merge, then part; they speak each other’s lines, or the chorus speaks for them, the priest demanding in bewilderment, “Who are you?,” Komachi replying, “Shame covers me when I speak my name.” She tells her story; suddenly she convulses; she is possessed — by the ghost of her thwarted lover.

Is the death agony his? Hers? The ending, as so often in noh, is a prayer: “Oh may (Buddha) lead me into the Path of Truth, into the Path of Truth.”

“Taniko,” the last play we have space to consider, is by Zeami’s son-in-law, Konparu Zenchiku (1405-c. 1468). We see something of a dynasty taking shape. But “Taniko” is a very different sort of play. Its theme is an odd one (though not unique): child sacrifice.

It begins benignly enough. A teacher who runs a temple school appears at the home of one of his pupils. The teacher is about to begin a journey and the boy has been absent for some time. What is the trouble? The boy’s mother is ill. The teacher expresses sympathy and announces his journey — a ritual mountain-climbing.

“I will come with you,” says the boy. Impossible, says the teacher. The ascent is too rugged for a child. The boy insists; the rigor of the climb will be a prayer for his mother’s recovery. The teacher relents. They join a party of mountain priests. Midway up, the boy falls ill. The custom in such cases, says a priest, is that the sick pilgrim must be hurled into the valley below. The teacher protests, but feebly, and the boy acquiesces at once: “I knew well that if I came on this journey I might lose my life.” We are at first surprised; on reflection, less so. Is not life a mere “lying dream”?

N.b. All quotations are drawn from translations by Arthur Waley, anthologized in “The Noh Plays of Japan” (1921). Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan” and “Other Worlds.”

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