Sōshi-arai Komachi [草紙洗(小町)]

Contributed by David Surtasky

Sōshi-arai Komachi [草紙洗(小町)]

A third category play by an unknown author.

Many years ago in Miyako there was a courtier named Ōtomo no Kuronushi. He was renowned for his poetry, and had been called to participate in a poetry contest at the Imperial Palace. Also participating in the contest was the famed poetess and beauty Ono no Komachi. Her long hair was like the finest silk, and her dark eyes like bottomless pools which men found themselves only too eager to be lost in. That Komachi was to be his rival streamin the contest made Kuronushi very nervous, and since the theme of the poems had already been set he knew she must have been working on her entry.  Kuronushi decided to sneak into Komachi’s house in order to hopefully listen to her composing her poem.

Having arrived at Komachi’s house with his servant in tow, Kuronushi discovered she was indeed composing her poem. Kuronushi listened intently. The theme was “Water Grasses,” and Komachi’s poem was delightful and sure to win great praise. She recited it aloud, and then wrote it deftly down on her poem card. This was a fine poem, and even in his envy Kuronushi knew he could not match such great skill. Kuronushi thought of a plan – he would take his anthology of classic poems (the Man’yōshū) and write Komachi’s poem down in it, and then tell the Emperor that she had plagiarized it, that it was in fact nothing but an old poem. In this way he was certain to win the poetry contest.

The day of the poetry contest came, and everyone was gathered. It was a pleasant spring day, and the contestants brought out their poem cards and placed them in front of the images of Kitomaru and Akahito (venerable poets of the Man’yōshū, surely the gods of Japanese poetry). Many noble people were in attendance, and with great excitement the poems were read. Finally Komachi was called upon and the Emperor’s retainer Tsurayuki read her poem aloud. The Emperor was pleased, and quite impressed: surely this was a most excellent poem!

palaceKuronushi interrupted the proceedings. Your Majesty, he said, just one moment. I believe that you’ll find that Komachi’s poem is in fact a classic poem. She did not write it. The courtiers were shocked by the accusation. Komachi blushed, and hid her face behind her fan; how could this be? She felt deeply ashamed by this allegation made before all of her friends.

How can this be an old poem? Komachi asked, is it written in the Man’yōshū? Who is the author? Please tell me what you know. Certainly, replied Kuronoshi, it is written right here in the Man’yōshū. The author is not listed, and so who actually wrote it isn’t clear. Komachi was well familiar with the anthology and knew all of the poems written there, but there were many different versions; it was possible that she didn’t know just this verse. Kuronushi expressed that Komachi’s poems were quite sensitive, but that they were also weak – he said that he felt it was entirely likely that she should make off with the work of another and claim it to be her own.

The courtiers and vassals murmured amongst themselves: How was this possible? It could not be mere coincidence if both these poems were truly the same. “Bring the book to me!” commanded the Emperor. He looked at once through its pages, coming at last to the poem about Water Grasses. Here it was. The poem was identical to the one claimed by Komachi!

arrangementWhat a terrible outcome. Komachi was mortified, and felt very much alone. The various lords and ladies looked at her askance, the palace women, even the vassals and servants were taken aback by her apparent dishonesty.

Komachi took up the anthology and looked at it closely. It seemed very much as if the words of the poem in question were written in an unsteady hand, and that even the color of the ink differed. She thought to herself that Kuronushi must have overheard her composing her poem, and then had written it into his copy of the Man’yōshū in order to discredit her and so win the contest. “Perhaps if I could wash the manuscript, it might wipe away this dishonor, and so clear my name,” she said to herself. Tsurayuki overheard her and ventured that if she did such a thing, and the poem were not truly washed away it would only add to her immeasurable shame. She wept, the sleeves of her robe soaked in tears, and began to leave the palace – overcome with sadness and defeat, and unable to meet the gaze of those assembled there.

Wait, said Tsurayuki. Let me tell the Emperor of your plan. He went to the Emperor and told him of Komachi’s observation – that the handwriting was uneven, that the ink was of a different color. My Lord, he said, Komachi wants to try and wash away these lines. Very well, replied the Emperor, let her do as she wishes.

pailKomachi, in great anticipation, clasped the sleeves of her robes to her shoulders and brought cool, fresh water from the stream in the palace garden. Like seaweed that is washed by the ocean, like the robes of lovers washed in the River of Heaven, Komachi washed the manuscript. She washed the songs of spring, she washed the songs of winter, lovingly she washed the words of the Man’yōshū. Although her sleeves grew cold, she washed still, washing love songs and praises to the Buddha, poems for the Shinto gods. Like red leaves washed by the rains of autumn. Like the pines of Sumiyoshi washed by the waves upon the shore. She washed and washed.

Look here! The words of the poem for Water Grasses were washed away. Not one other word, or name, or attribute in the book was marred save that one verse. With great pleasure she presented the book to the Emperor, showing him that the pure water had erased the accusing poem.

Having been found out, Kuronoshi felt disgraced. There was nothing he could do now except go and kill himself. Saying as much, he readied himself for the deed. Please wait, said Komachi. It is only your great love of poetry that led you to such a despicable act! Any one of us so moved by the precious art might be tempted to do such a thing. If I myself want recognition for my poems, surely you want the same thing and we are not so different after all.

danceThe Emperor commanded Kuronoshi to stay his hand. Yes, whoever loves poetry so deeply and is so devoted to its Way might well be tempted to do such a thing. Please give up your remorse, and attend me now. In being commanded by the Emperor, Kuronoshi gladly obeyed. Komachi had helped to save his honor, and in her graciousness she did not hold his affront against him.

How wonderful, this forgiveness! Please dance for us, Komachi! They dressed the gorgeous Ono no Komachi in flower-colored robes and placed a fine eboshi on her flowing hair. The drums and flute played brightly and she danced in celebration.

The mists of morning rise up as the sun strikes them, the mist over the mountain reveals the verdant pines in the glorious light. The waves of the sea, the people of the earth, all are calm and serene. The Emperor’s reign was auspicious, and in the new spring the flowers bloomed vibrantly – so guided by the Way of Poetry, all things might be at peace.



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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