Shunkan (俊寛)

Contributed by David Surtasky

Shunkan (俊寛)

A fourth-category play by an unknown author

Quite some time ago there was a great war between the Minamoto and Taira clans. It was a terrible war, and many had suffered because of it. It so happened around that time, the royal consort of Lord Taira no Kiyomori was about to give birth, and so an amnesty had been declared for a number of political criminals who had been banished throughout the realm, in order to bring good fortune to the birth.

enoshimaA Messenger was traveling with letters of pardon, and he set out on his way by ship to Kikaigashima Island. Captain Fujiwara no Naritsune and Magistrate Taira no Yasuyori of the Heike clan had been banished to the island, and now were about to be set free. Kikaigashima Island was craggy and desolate. It reeked of sulfur from an active volcano, and was said to be a place where demons dwelt. It was a hard life indeed for the banished men.

Naritsune and Yasuyori had built three makeshift shrines on the island, in memory of the shrines of Kumano. They had prayed at the shrines, and hoped that the time would come when they might be pardoned. It was a sorry situation. Naritsune and Yasuyori had vowed to make thirty-three pilgrimages to the shrines of Kumano, but they had been banished before they could achieve their vow.

In their poor state, they were clad with inelegant robes, crusted white with brine from the sea and stained with their innumerable tears. They had no rice. As offerings to the gods, they could bring little but sand from the beach and stunted flowers from the fields.

The priest Shunkan had also been banished to the island. For Shunkan, being at Kikaigashima felt like he had been made a guardian of the gates of hell. Here was endless night, with only the semblance of actual life. The rabbit of the moon slept during the day on a mountain, the rooster of the sun slept at night on a barren branch, the cicada of autumn clung to a dead tree and sang in loneliness. The rabbit, the rooster, the cicada ~ Shunkan felt as if he were like one of these.

sakeReturning from their pilgrimage around the makeshift shrines, Naritsune and Yasuyori came upon the priest. “Shunkan,” said Yasuyori “what are you doing there?” “Look,” replied Shunkan “I’ve brought some sake to celebrate your return!”

“Sake? But surely it is only water!” Yasuyori said. “Yes, but we are on a mountain path, and it is valley water,” Shunkan expressed “Let’s think of this water as refined sake. It is said in legends, that Hōso drank water from a deep valley and lived for seven hundred years. A powerful medicine indeed!”

Saying this, Shunkan wondered how many years he might have to spend in exile on the island. Springtime long gone, summer passed, autumn over, and winter on its way. He missed his old life in the Capital with deep longing. The memories of it were like daggers in his heart. Once he had lived in finery and taken it all for granted, and now he dwelt in hardship like the last leaf that had fallen off a tree. A leaf was now what he used for a cup, and his sake nothing more than water. Tears fell from Shunkan’s eyes. He felt he could only blame himself for what had come to pass, and as if his life had already come to an end. Autumn leaves fall from the trees.

After traveling swiftly, the Messenger had arrived on Kikaigashima with the letters of pardon. Having arrived, the Messenger announced himself and his purpose. “Ho, there! I am a Messenger from the Lord Taira no Kiyomori. Are you gentlemen in exile here? Come and read this letter of pardon, your release is at hand.”

Shunkan, Yasuyori and Naritsune came to him quickly in order to read the letter:

In order to bring good fortune for the birth of the royal consort’s baby, an amnesty has been declared. Those who have been banished to the far corners of the realm shall be forgiven. Of those banished to Kikaigashima Island, Captain Fujiwara no Naritsune and Magistrate Taira no Yasuyori of the Heike clan are without question granted clemency.

“Where is my name?” asked Shunkan. “It is not here,” replied Yasuyori, “You can see what is written for yourself.” Shunkan was stunned; “Surely, there must be some mistake,” he said.

beach_2“There is no mistake,” the Messenger said with authority “I received the order directly in the Capital, and it was said to me that Shunkan was to remain here on Kikaigashima Island. It is unfortunate perhaps, but it is the truth of the matter.”

It was as if Shunkan had been struck a heavy blow. He sank to his knees. “How can this be?” he cried out “We were all convicted of the same crime, exiled to the same island, the amnesty should apply to all of us. Why would I be left behind? Even with the three of us, the island was desolate. How can I remain here all alone? I am nothing better than seaweed drifting on the endless waves. How awful this is! Although my tears change nothing, I cannot stop from weeping.”

Flowers, although they have no mind to think with, weep sympathetic tears when they feel deep sorrow. Birds feel pain in their breasts when they confront departure. Here was Shunkan, to be left alone on the “Demon Island,” confined to some form of perpetual hell. Even the demons must feel sorrow for Shunkan. Birds and animals cried out in sympathy for the now bereft Shunkan.

shunkan_1Shunkan, in disbelief, read the scroll over and over again. The words were unchanging. There are only two names to be read, two men to be pardoned. He turned the scroll over to look at the back, yet found only the title there. Was this a dream, or illusion? Please, thought Shunkan, let it end.

The Messenger boarded the still waiting ship, and instructed Yasuyori and Naritsune to join him without day. Although they grieved for Shunkan, the two men were hasty in their desire to depart the island. Shunkan clutched Yasuyori’s sleeve and tried to climb aboard the ship. The Messenger rebuked him.

“Please,” Shunkan begged, “As an official, you may use your discretion. Take me at least to Satsuma. Demonstrate mercy and allow me aboard the ship!” The crew of the ship rose up their oars, ready to strike Shunkan should he have dared to embark. The pitiable priest retreated in fear, but clung to the mooring line, trying to prevent to ship from leaving. The boatman cut the line, and the ship drifted from the shore.

Standing in the waves, Shunkan was mad with grief. He put his hands together as if in prayer and cried out “Ship!” over and over, but the boatman paid him no mind. He fell down on the sand and wept the bitterest tears. Shamelessly he cried, but to no avail. There was no comparison to his sadness, his loss, his true and now abiding loneliness.

Naritsune and Yasuyori were moved, and shouted from the departing ship; “When we return to the Capital, we will speak on your behalf! Have faith, wait just a bit longer and perhaps you’ll be able to return as well.”

Shunkan now stood by a lone pine tree on the beach, watching the ship. He listened to the voices calling out. The sun was setting, and the ship looked far away. “Wait!” the voices in the dark distance cried. “Wait, and have hope!” The voices faded, like the ship, moving off into the sea. Then, no voices could be heard, no ship could be seen. Standing by the pine, only the sound of the wind, only the sound of the endless waves, only the growing of the endless dark. Shunkan stood alone.



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 Shunkan (俊寛)

  1. Pingback: Learning to Stand | Theatre Nohgaku Blog

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