[Editor’s note: in Eileen Katō’s forward to her translation of Kinuta (Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 32, No. 3 (Autumn, 1977), pp. 332-346) she quotes Zeami as saying of this work:
Once on a quiet night, while listening to the music of Kinuta, he said, ‘Since the people of aftertime will hardly appreciate such a Noh as this, there is no point in my leaving any writings on it. It is of a supreme and indefinable quality, trancending the usual norms of critical appreciation; even if one tries to write about it, one cannot find the appropriate words. As you advance to the higher levels of your art, you will come to a natural understanding of it.’
Continuing, she reflects on the above, saying:
“Fortunately Zeami was mistaken about the response of people of aftertime. He was correct, however, regarding the difficulty of writing about this extraordinary play, for its power is far easier to feel than discuss.”
It is my sense that Katō’s comments are quite true. The anguish as spoken of with words can only be a pale reflection of the emotions experienced by anyone so consumed by their passions as the Lady of Ashiya and so deftly expressed in Zeami’s play. The below synopsis is offered as little more than a thin description of Zeami’s genious and deep sensibilities. The synopsis is derived in part from Katō’s translation, with sincere apologies to both the author and to Zeami for its poor rendering.]
Contributed by David Surtasky
A fourth category play by Kanze Motokiyo Zeami
A certain Lord from the village Ashiya in Kyushu had been called to Kyoto to face a lawsuit. He didn’t expect that it would take much of his time, but after three years away from home became concerned about what might be happening there. He called his maidservant Yūgiri to him and told her about his troubled thoughts. The Lord instructed Yūgiri to return to Ashiya and deliver the message that although he’d been gone away for a long time, he would with certainty return before the end of the year.
The maidservant Yūgiri set off at once, and before long arrived at Ashiya. The Lady of the house had become despondent over time, and was reflecting on her sadness and missing her beloved husband greatly. Yūgiri was announced to the Lady who invited her in but then told her of the ill-sentiment that she held against her: The Lady felt that even if her husband’s feelings had turned against her, couldn’t Yūgiri have sent some word or even come and paid a visit?
Yūgiri replied that she had longed to return to Ashiya, but that her duties to the Lord had prevented it. She lamented the three tedious years she’d spent in Kyoto. The Lady had grown lonely being by herself all this time, and dwelt in abject sadness. Her tears were like rain on the sleeves of her robe, and all the world felt like a never-ending autumn. She believed that her husband’s feelings must have turned away from her, and that his once cherished words of love should be little more than lies. If only all this time had been a dream, she could have awakened and her anguish would have departed, instead she had only memories of the past to keep her company.
In the distance could be heard the sound of the kinuta; a fulling-block on which the women of the village beat their cloth. The doleful sounds made the Lady think of a story from ancient China: There was a man named Sobu who had been captured by enemies and held against his will for many years. His wife and children were left alone in poverty and loneliness – and in their grief they would go to the top of a local tower and beat the kinuta. Across the many miles Sobu, in his dreams, could hear the kinuta of his distant home. The wife would beat her husband’s damask robe in a vain attempt to find peace within her heart.
Beating the fulling-block is work for those of lower birth, Yūgiri said to the Lady, but if it would comfort you I will bring a kinuta to you. Yes, replied the Lady, bring it here at once and place it on the bed – the tear-soaked mat where once she’d lain with her beloved spouse. In her great longing she invited Yūgiri to join her in striking on the block.
The twilight of autumn gathered about them as they began to strike the kinuta, beating on the husband’s robe. Far away on the hill the mournful call of a mountain stag echoed down the valley. Slowly they beat, and then faster while the light of the moon passed into the west. The Lady’s husband was far to the east, and she implored the wind to beat in rhythm with the kinuta, and perhaps carry her hopes to where her Lord slept and dreamt. If only they could have but one more brief moment together. The beating of the fulling-block joined together with her anguished cries, the insect’s voices and the drop of each sad and salted tear upon the bed.
Yūgiri was called away to receive a message. With bitterness she returned to her Lady and delivered the deplorable news – the Lord would not return this autumn. The Lady’s hopes were dashed like waves against cruel rocks, thinking now that truly her husband’s feelings had turned against her. Her heartbreak was beyond measure and as the insect voices faded and the twisted grass blew sharply in the wind, the Lady sank down onto her tear-stained bed and died.
Her spirit called from the world beyond, out of the shadow of prayer sticks and grass, brought forth by the twanging of the catalpa bow – the Lady appeared before him. Here, at the foot of a plum-tree was her grave. Her life had been short, and almost as if in vain. Her longing and her heartbreak were like unfurling smoke rising up through the embers of desire. Her attachment was so great it had condemned her to torment in the afterworld. Each tear that fell from her cheek turned to scalding flame as struck the ground, and from her chest was raised an unquenchable fire. Still striking the kinuta, but there was no sound. Even the silent wind in the pines brought no relief. Her memories and her unrequited passion bound her to the wheel of karma; the world like a burning house from which all souls should seek to escape by relinquishing their desires.
How could her husband have known of her great and destructive longing? Apart from her so long, he knew nothing of what had consumed her.
In time the Lotus Sutra was chanted, and the way of the Buddha was revealed to the Lady. In time she beat the kinuta and heard the sutra interwoven with its rhythm. In time her heart opened like a plum blossom flower and in that moment and in the grace of the Sutra her salvation was found.