Kurama-tengu (鞍馬天狗)

Contributed by David Surtasky

Kurama-tengu (鞍馬天狗)

A fifth category play (attributed to Miyamasu)

rooflineA certain Yamabushi (mountain priest) from the valley of Sōjō-ga-tani had heard that there would be a cherry blossom viewing party on the nearby Mount Kurama. He decided that he too would like to enjoy the wonderful sight and fragrance of the blossoms. Coming to Kurama temple he sat apart from the others gathered there, he sat quietly and in waiting.

Meanwhile a servant from the West Valley temple arrived with a letter for the Senior Monk of the East Valley temple. The Senior Monk received the letter from his counterpart, and proceeded to read it. It was an invitation to visit the West Valley and view the cherry blossoms since they were at their peak. It was said that the blossoms were perfect, and that no branch was withering that there wasn’t another branch about to bloom.

The Senior Monk of the East Valley and his retinue decided to accept the gracious invitation from the West Valley – they departed for Mount Kurama. They took with them a number of people, including some children and the boy Ushiwakamaru. It was as if the mountain were a cloud of cherry blossoms. They felt that they couldn’t lose their way on the winding path, following the sight and scent of the blossoms.

matsuWhen they arrived at the West Valley, one of the temple servants noticed the unkempt Yamabushi watching the proceedings from a distance. Distraught with the Yamabushi’s unseemly looks, the servant approached the Senior Monk and asked whether or not the Yamabushi should be chased away. The Senior Monk was concerned that this might lead to some personal disgrace, and unwilling to have a confrontation he decided it was best to retire with his retinue and return the next day. The boy Ushiwakamaru was left behind.

The Yamabushi was somewhat insulted that, having merely seen him, everyone at the party had run off. He was reminded of a poem that said that we should celebrate the blossoms in the garden together, and not have concerns about the nature of the guests who’ve gathered there to enjoy them. Believing that Kurama temple was free of worldliness, he was saddened to learn that the devoted monks and servants would fail to show compassion to all living beings.

The boy Ushiwakamaru saw the Yamabushi’s distress, and in friendship invited him to come closer and enjoy a better view of the blossoms. The Yamabushi was grateful for Ushiwakamaru’s kindness and was taken by his youthful appearance. He inquired why Ushiwakamaru had stayed behind when all the others had left. Ushiwakamaru replied that doorwaythe other children were descendents of the Heike clan and greatly valued at the temple, while he was a descendent of the Genji and not treated with much favor. Learning of the boy’s noble blood the Yamabushi felt great empathy; he also was set apart and lonely as a result his station in life.

Here, on Mount Kurama, it could be without doubt a lonely place. The cherry blossoms might fall just as snow or rain or pine needles when the wind blows. The cry of monkeys in the distance could echo from the peaks and sound sorrowful to those who might have listened. As the evening began to draw near, the Yamabushi asked Ushiwakamaru to accompany him. He spoke to him of Mount Atago as well as Mount Takao in the East where the flowers were first to bloom, and Mount Hira and Mount Yokawa where the flowers where the last. The evening bell at the temple began to ring and Ushiwakamaru was happy for the graciousness and attention shown to him. The boy inquired as to the identity of the Yamabushi.

obeshimi_2_maskThe Yamabushi declared that he had nothing left to hide. He was in fact the Great Tengu of Mount Kurama and had dwelt on the mountainside for hundreds of years. He informed the boy that he would be willing to impart the secrets of the art of war to him since he sensed he should become a leader of the Genji clan. With these words he bade Ushiwakamaru to return the next day, and then bounded off onto a cloud and flew away into the sky.

And so Ushiwakamaru came to devote himself to training in the secrets of the art of war. His sparring partners became the menial tengu themselves and in time he was readily able to best them. For his practice Ushiwakamaru was taken to wearing a cherry colored kimono and a thin hitatare. He tacked his sleeves up on his shoulders by their strings and covered himself in banded armor while carrying a splendid sword with a white wooden handle. It was said that even monsters and demons were unable to overcome his elegance and bravery.

tengu_2The Great Tengu oversaw the young lad’s training, and introduced his own retainers – tengu from far provinces: Kyushu, Shikoku and Suruga. Tengu from many more places were present, even the revered tengu of Mount Takao. They flew about the mountain, leapt from tree to tree and were like smoke or mist or clouds; so swift were they and numerous. Like a storm in winter or the thunderous cascade of a waterfall, their ceaseless motion reverberated through the mountains.

Ushiwakamaru had been lenient with the menial tengu. In sparring with them he had only cut them slightly. Since they were retainers to the Great Tengu he refrained from injuring them greatly out of concern that he would be admonished. The Great Tengu was satisfied with his approach, and told him the story of the respectful treatment of a master:

Once, in a distant time, there was a man named Zhang Liang who was servant to the first emperor in the Han Dynasty in China. Zhang Liang inherited his military prowess and the great secrets of the art of war from his master, the renowned ascetic Huang Shigong. One day each of them were on horseback, and ran across each other quite by accident. Huang Shigong, for some reason, intentionally dropped his shoe and ordered Zhang Liang to pick it up and put it back on his foot. Even though Zhang Liang felt unhappy with such a preposterous request, he dismounted his horse, retrieved the shoe and returned it to his master’s foot. A short time later, and again on horseback, Zhang Liang met his master. This time Huang Shigong dropped both of his shoes, and in a very unpleasant tone instructed Zhang Liang to put them back on his feet. Feeling more than insulted at such a trivial request; Zhang Liang calmed himself and again complied with the wishes of his master. In seeing Zhang Liang’s calm and composure, Huang Shigong understood him to be a dutiful student and so taught him with vigor the secret arts of war.

tengu_1Comparing Ushiwakamaru with the dutiful Zhang Liang, the Great Tengu praised him for his diligence. Although the Great Tengu was rough and difficult to look at, the boy had treated him with the utmost respect. The Great Tengu was in fact a creature of immense dignity despite his appearance, and he danced a lively dance in demonstration of this truth.

The Genji, descendents of the Emperor, were particularly prestigious the Great Tengu told Ushiwakamaru. If the lad were to follow the Great Tengu’s training he would truly be the one to defeat the boastful Heike and drive them in shame into the Western sea. Ushiwakamaru would have the secret skills to fly by riding on the clouds or even hover over the greatest of waves. He could utterly destroy his enemies and so erase a stain from his both father and his ancestors. The Great Tengu promised his eternal protection, and saying this bade his farewell. Ushiwakamaru caught at the Great Tengu’s sleeve, telling his master that he would miss him greatly. Even though he might battle in far distant lands, the Great Tengu said, he would ensure the lad’s protection even as a shadow never departs from its host. With these words the Great Tengu flew up above the treetops of Mount Kurama and disappeared into the gathering twilight.



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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