Kiyotsune (清経)

Contributed by David Surtasky

Kiyotsune (清経) (summary)

A second category play by Zeami

Before the final demise of the Heike, Awazu no Saburo was a retainer to the warrior general Taira no Kiyotsune. In a disastrous set of circumstances at Kyushu with his rivals the Genji – Kiyotsune lost out to his enemies, and instead of allowing himself to be killed by someone of lesser station he took his own life by drowning himself at Yanagi-ga-ura. The retainer Saburo was in possession of a lock of his master’s hair, and made his way to Kyoto to deliver it to Kiyotsune’s wife.

kyoto_bridgeOn a damp autumn evening Saburo returned to the capital, finding it somehow utterly different than how he remembered it. In shame he hid his identity behind his sleeves and crept quietly into the city.

Finding Kiyotsune’s wife, Saburo had to break the unfortunate news to her. At first she thought perhaps that her husband had joined the priesthood, knowing that he had survived the battle but was defeated. Saburo told the poor woman that her husband Kiyotsune was no longer alive, that in order to save his honor he had drowned himself.

In great distress Kiyotsune’s wife railed against him. If only his end had come in battle, or even through sickness she could have borne the news more easily. He had promised to return, and she felt he was nothing better than a liar for having forsaken his promise. While waiting for Kiyotsune to return the woman had wept silently, making little more noise than the wind in the grass. Now that she knew his true fate she gave forth with torrential sobs crying aloud in her grief.

Saburo told the woman that he had come with a lock of Kiyotsune’s hair, bound up as a keepsake. He presented it to her in accordance with Kiyotsune’s wishes, in hopes that it would bring her some comfort. Holding the lock of hair only made the distraught woman feel worse, her sorrow more intense. Unable to see any future other than darkness she decided to take the hair to Usa Hachimangu Shrine and leave it there wishing to forget it.

phantom_armorNight after night Kiyotsune’s wife wept bitter tears. Shifting her pillow over and over she prayed that her husband would appear to her in a dream, hoping that at last his spirit would know the true longing in her heart. Kiyostune appeared to her one night, telling her that dreams were not truth, and that mankind’s sufferings are only illusion and as impermanent as clouds and rain. His wife was grateful to see this vision, even if it were only a dream – but she could not hold her feelings inside and told him of her resentment, that his promise to return had been false.

The dream-warrior Kiyotsune spoke out against his wife’s accusations, saying that he was resentful of her for abandoning the lock of hair he had left as a keepsake. He had sent it to her as a lasting memento, and now he saw his actions were in vain. His wife told him that even if his intention was that the lock bring comfort to her, that instead it filled her with remorse – she blamed him for killing himself, for not being true, for not returning. He blamed her for discarding his intended treasure.

Each of them blamed the other, and each lamented their own feelings. In the very bed they were meeting on they were meant to be entwined as lovers, and now instead they were turning their backs to each other as if sleeping alone.

Kiyotsune tried to explain himself. He begged his wife to listen to the story of his demise, and put aside her resentful feelings. He told her the story of the end of his days:

chujoHolding fast at the castle in Yamaga, Taira no Kiyotsune with the fleeing Emperor and his troops learned that the Genji would soon overcome them. They gathered up their meager supplies and dashed to their small boats, fleeing in the middle of the night to Yanagi. There, under the willow trees, a temporary camp was set up for the Emperor. The Emperor brought offerings to the Usa Hachimangu Shrine in hopes for their deliverance. Kiyotsune’s wife interrupted the tale, reminding him that while the Emperor still reigned that he had no right to throw away his life.

An oracle had been pronounced, Kiyotsune replied, telling the courtiers of the futility of their cause. They had visited Usa Hachimangu shrine, prayed earnestly and made their best devotions, but from beyond the brocaded curtain of the holy treasury they had heard a voice telling them that even the deity of Usa could not offer salvation to those suffering in the transient world. All things weaken and fade just as the song of crickets dies at the end of autumn. Having heard such a pronouncement the Heike returned to the camp at Yanagi in despair. There could be no salvation if even the deities and the Buddha had turned aside from them.

asuraThe Heike knew that the Genji still pursued them. They gathered up their possessions, and again set forth in their boats – now without even a destination. They felt cast adrift like scattered fallen leaves. Even the waves at Yanagi-ga-ura looked as if they were enemies pursuing them. Seeing a pine tree covered in egrets their hearts felt weak, mistaking the birds for the white flags of the Genji.

Kiyotsune felt a growing obsession with the oracle, and with the truth that the Bodhisattva Hachiman protected the righteous but abandoned the arrogant. He dwelt in self-pity, and felt as if he were doing nothing more than clinging to a floating reed cast about on endless waves. In his despair, he arose before dawn one day and stood on the bow of the ship, his face expressionless, pretending as if he were watching the waning moon. He took out his flute, and played it in the clear morning air so that the sound spread out across the ocean. Suddenly he didn’t care what anyone else thought of him, or how others might judge his actions. Looking at the sinking moon he was filled with the desire to go with it, and chanting the prayer “namidabutsu” he begged the Buddha for mercy while leaping off the prow and then sank beneath the waves.

Listening to his story, Kiyotsune’s wife could only be distressed. Her heart was veiled in darkness, and although she pitied him she still felt full of reproach. Kiyotsune asked her to please finally cast aside her resentment, that the torments of Asura Hell (the Buddhist hell where warriors are consigned) buddhaand the torments of the waking world were one and the same. After his death he had been condemned to Asura Hell where the rain was turned to arrows and the earth was sharp as a sword. Eternally phantom soldiers charged with flags of tattered clouds, their eyes glinting with evil and arrogance. Attachment, dissatisfaction, anger, reproachfulness. The foolish illusions of life combated over and over with the truth of enlightenment. But Kiyotsune had died with the invocation of Buddha on his lips. Even in his despair he had put his hopes in promised salvation, and so saying to his wife, he faded from her dream and boarded the boat to the Pure Land of the West.


About Theatre Nohgaku

Noh, one of the oldest continuing stage arts, combines highly stylized dance, chant, music, mask and costume with intense inner concentration and physical discipline, creating a uniquely powerful theatrical experience. Theatre Nohgaku’s mission is to share noh’s beauty and power with English speaking audiences and performers. We have found that this traditional form retains its dramatic effectiveness in languages other than Japanese. We believe noh techniques hold a powerful means of expression in the context of contemporary English language theatre.
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1 Response to Kiyotsune (清経)

  1. Pingback: 今何時、我々は何処ですか | Theatre Nohgaku Blog

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