Contributed by David Surtasky
In many noh plays, the place-names appear more significant than the people themselves. As a convention many characters are introduced as roles, often related to their function or task in life: a Grasscutter (Atsumori), a Child (Iwafune), a Noble Lady (Momijigari), a Young Woman (Motomezuka). On some occasions the roles obscure the true identity of the shite in the first half of the play, until they are fully revealed as ghost, god or demon in the second. On other occasions the character has no identity ascribed other than the role itself (Kinuta as an example, wherein the shite’s name is never spoken, although the waki’s name, Yūgiri, is made clear. In Kinuta the place-names are also made clear: Kyoto; Ashiya village in Kyushu, although the main actors themselves have none other than their title.)
In his paper outlining certain Buddhist themes and thoughts in noh, (Buddhism in Noh, Royall Tyler, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, Vol. 14, No. 1 (Mar., 1987), pp. 19-52, Published by: Nanzan University) Tyler states “All Noh plays are precisely situated. Classical verse is full of the poetry of places and of place names, and strong interest in place may be found in much other writing of the centuries which precede the time of Noh; but it is remarkable that practically every Noh play contains a journey to a specific, named spot.”
Remarkable then: the spirits, gods and humans reside in a specific place. We need to travel to that place, through the agency of the waki, in order to become acquainted with them. Tyler goes on to assert that “Japan is a mountainous country, and the typical sacred place in the Japanese Middle Ages was a temple or shrine associated with a mountain. Therefore a mountain is the central element in the landscape of Noh. The other elements are the full moon, water, the water’s edge, and a pine tree.” In reading through many plays other key elements reveal themselves: places of barrier or transition ~ a bridge (Yamamba, Kiyotsune), a gate (Tōboku, Yōkihi), a fence (Nonomiya, Hashitomi), a road. The specifics of place then are paramount in telling the stories in noh.
The material and immaterial then are bound to the world in a certain way, but perhaps not quite as bound in time. Events for the waki principally seem to occur in the present moment, no matter how long ago the events recounted before them may be. The spirits of the dead are ensconced in the places their attachments focus on, caught in the perpetual now of their unenlightened state. The gods and demons reside in the holy places, or the cursed. An indication of “when” has little significance when compared to the issue of “where.”
There are no doubt many reasons for the importance of where. Written during a time when travel was either prohibited (or at least extremely difficult) for most people – this would be the only way that they might, by proxy at least, ever experience the places spoken of in poems and songs. Common people couldn’t become the Priest, or Monk, or Madwoman and travel past the Osaka Checkpoint. They would no doubt never have the occasion to venture as far from their homes as Mount Hakone (Chōbuku Soga,) or the fields of Nasuno-no-hara (Sesshōseki.)
Perhaps there is another aspect, although unintended. I recently stood on Inari-yama, home of the Fushimi Inari Taisha (伏見稲荷大社) overlooking modern Kyoto. As I stood there, I was reminded of the mae-shite of Tōru telling the monk about the famous places in the area, and mentioning the mountain to the East. Below, in the valley, I could see the Kamo River, and could imagine the great mansion, Kawara-no-in, that once stood on the western bank. In my mind’s eye, I could see the smoke from the salt kiln that once rose into the still early spring air, the vast number of laborers, in a great long line stretching to the ocean, carrying sea water to the artificial lake for the pleasure of the Minister of the Left Minamoto no Tōru, so that he could recreate in miniature a beautiful vista of Chika-no-Shiogama harbor that he’d never actually seen. Although he died over a thousand years ago, just in that moment ~ he was real to me. He was real to me because of the place, the name of the place. The landscape of Kyoto had changed so much over time, people had lived and died, fires and storms, and nothing was the same. But the name of the place had remained. By invoking the name, we may also invoke the world beyond ours.
Maybe that is also important. Standing in the named place, remembering people who were long gone and the things that they did, and more importantly recounting the feelings that they felt. Standing next to the famous shrine, and feeling the breath of the gods on one’s neck. Allowing for those connections, to those gone, and those unseen who perhaps will never leave.