Sumidagawa (隅田川)

Contributed by David Surtasky

Sumidagawa (隅田川)

a fourth category play by Kanze Jūrō Motomasa

There was once a Boatman who ferried people across the Sumidagawa, and on a certain day he was impatient to bring his passengers aboard. A Buddhist ceremony was to be held on the other bank of the river, and he was anxious to be away.

matsuOn that day, a Traveler arrived from Kyoto, far away in the West. He was on his way to visit a friend, and had left the remote mountains far behind him clouded in mist and rain. Through many checkpoints he’d gone, and through many provinces, and so finally had reached the prominent Sumidagawa. Traveling swiftly, he had at last arrived to board the ferry to take him to the far shore. “Ho, boatman,” he said, as he hurried up the quay “Wait just a moment and let me aboard!”

“By all means,” the Boatman replied “but it would be best to hurry. It seems there is some commotion from the direction that you came. What is going on back there, if you do know?” “There is a madwoman, it seems,” the Traveler said, “having only just now come from Kyoto. The local people are taunting her for some reason.” The Boatman thought for a moment, but was not a cruel man at heart; “I suppose I should wait for a moment or so more, since this woman must be coming here to board the boat.”

The Madwoman came closer to the shore. She was thinking of an old poem, one that described the loss of judgment that a mother might feel due to their profound attachment to their child. She thought of this poem, and felt the truth of it deep in her breast. Even if the wind blows in the sky without a thought of any kind, still it rustles the pine and makes itself known. The Madwoman was desperate. All that was in her mind was bewilderment over her lost child. In great sadness, and complete loss, she shuffled out a small dance of anguish.

The Madwoman was someone who had lived in Kitashirakawa, in Kyoto, for quite some time. It had come to pass that a slave trader had stolen her only child away from her. She’d immediately begun searching for him, and had heard from others that he’d been sent off beyond the Ōsaka checkpoint. In her great distress she’d traveled from Kyoto, asking here and there “has anyone seen my son?” She wandered almost aimlessly with her heart in great confusion.

kanashiiIt is said that, even though separated by countless miles, the heart of a mother never forgoes the love for their child. We all have but one life, and our connection with others is all that makes life worth living.

The Madwoman had searched endlessly. She had gone here and there, and had been to all the places she could imagine that her son might have be taken and so had finally arrived on the banks of the Sumidagawa.

“Boatman,” the Madwoman implored “will you take me on your ferry?” “Where have you come from, and where do you think you’re headed?” replied the Boatman. “I’ve come from Kyoto, and am looking for someone,” she said. “Well, for a person from the Capital, you look a bit disheveled, even a bit crazy I must say. So then, entertain us with your craziness. If you don’t, well then, I’m afraid I won’t let you aboard.”

“How cruel!” the Madwoman stated, “Since you’re the boatman of the Sumidagawa, then you should behave like the boatman from the Tale of Ise and cry out to me ‘The end of day has come! Everyone, climb aboard!’ Although you think I’m crazy, I have come from Kyoto and deserve some small respect. Please, don’t be rude to me and refuse my request.” “Well, so you say. You’re from Kyoto,” said the Boatman in a somewhat sarcastic manner, “and with your elegance you are ‘true to the name’ of Kyoto.”

Now the Madwoman understood that the Boatman was testing her, teasing her with a phrase from the great Lord Narihira’s poem.

_DSC1065“The Lord Narihira wrote a poem on this very pier, as you surely know,” the Madwoman said; “Oh, Miyakodori, if true to your name, you will tell me if the one that I love still shares this world.” These were the words that Lord Narihira had said to another boatman in an age long past. Miyakodori meant bird of the capital. “So, Boatman, look over there. That bird is seldom to be seen in Kyoto. What name would you give it?” she inquired.

“That? Why it is a seagull,” the Boatman replied. The Madwoman insisted, “If we were on the ocean’s edge, then a seagull perhaps. But, here, on the edge of the Sumidagawa, should you not rather reply ‘Miyakodori?’ ” “How right you are!” said the Boatman “and here I live in a famous place, and now am ashamed to think that I failed to answer truly.” “What a poor answer, to call it only a gull.” she said. “Thinking of Narihira’s poem …” he said. “Yes, he asked ‘tell me if the one I love still shares this world.’” she said, “he was thinking on his love who was so far from his side. In this way we are no different. Narihira, distraught over his distant love, and me seeking my lost child. Our hearts are the same, and these two loves not different at all.” A journey of loss and desire, bound by attachment.

“Miyakodori,” the Madwoman cried, “tell me please if my child still shares this world. I ask again and again, but the bird will not reply. How cruel, how cruel. I have traveled so far, and now here I am. Please boatman, even if you say the boat is full, let me board and travel to the other shore.”

“You are commendable. I’ve never met a madwoman such as you, nor one so well spoken. Indeed, please make your way aboard. Hurry now! The river is swift and wide. Sit still, sit still, and now we shall cross the river!” the Boatman declared.

The Traveler was well situated in the boat, and had watched the whole exchange. As the boat pulled out from the shore, he could see a large number of people gathered on the opposite bank under a great willow tree. “What are they doing over there? Why are there so many people?”

In order to pass the time while rowing across the river, the Boatman told the Traveler the story:

_DSC1074A Buddhist ceremony will be held tonight. It is the result of a grave misfortune. Last year, on the 15th day of the third month, a slave trader who had bought a young boy was traveling to Ōshū from the area of the Capital. No doubt as the result of the great stress of his captivity, and fatigue from making such a long trip, the young boy fell grievously ill and collapsed on the bank of the river. The slave trader had no mercy, nor any time to deal with such a damaged product, and so he simply left the boy to his fate and continued on his way. The people from the village came to check on the boy, and comforted him as best they could, but he only became weaker and weaker. Perhaps it was his fate, or karma from a previous life. When his end came near, we asked the boy his father’s name and where he had come from. He replied, “I’m the son of Yoshida, from Kitashirakawa in Kyoto. My father is dead, and I have only my mother. I was stolen from my home by a slaver, and it seems, have come to meet my fate. Just now, perhaps even the notion of a person from Kyoto passing by soothes my heart. Here, at the side of the road, please plant a willow tree and dedicate it as my tomb.” Then he recited part of the sutra, and serenely went from this life.

Certainly a tragic tale, isn’t it though?

“Some of you have come from Kyoto,” the Boatman said to the passengers “Please come to the memorial service and together we can pray for the salvation of this poor boy.” Having said this, the boat had finally arrived at the far shore. The Traveler thinking about the boys fate said sadly; “Even though I’m only passing by, I think I’ll stay here tonight and join in the memorial service.”

The Boatman noticed that the Madwoman was still aboard the boat, but looking very distraught. She was crying. “Why don’t you get off the boat?” he said, “We’ve come to the _DSC1090shore. Why are you so upset, is it because of the story I just told?” “When did this happen?” the Madwoman cried. “It was just one year ago. It was a shame, the boy was only about twelve years old,” said the Boatman. “What was his name?” she said. “It was Umewakamaru. His father’s name was Yoshida.” he replied.

“No one has come to visit his grave? Not even his mother?” the Madwoman lamented. The Boatman responded, “It is true, nor any of his relatives. It seems unlikely that they shall.” “Certainly they haven’t. No parents or relatives,” she sobbed, “Of course, since he was my only son. He is the child I’ve been looking for! Please tell me this is just a terrible dream!” The Boatman was humbled; “I grieve for your loss,” he said “Let me show you to your son’s grave. Please, come this way.”

The Boatman brought Umewakamaru’s Mother to the child’s grave. “The world is unjust. My son left Kyoto far behind, and now he has become dust along the side of the road. I’d come all this way, brought by the hope that I might see him again, but all I can do now is gaze upon his grave. Only the weeds are here to keep him company. He must lie sleeping under this mound of dirt,” the Mother sighed with deep longing and attachment. “Please,” she said, “for my sake, dig my son from the ground so that I might see him one last time!”

The child’s young life had ended, yet the Mother’s life went on in torment. In her mind’s eye she could see her son, yet only as a shadow. Surely death comes one day for us all. This world overflows with sadness. The blossoms of youth are blown away by pitiless and uncaring winds. In the sky above, dark and fickle clouds now obscure the moon, the only light for souls who are lost.

_DSC8779“There is nothing to be done,” the Boatman said, “Please, make prayers to the Buddha, and ease your son’s soul in the afterlife.” That night the moon had risen in the sky, and a chill breeze blew over the Sumidagawa, whitecaps glittering in the waves. The time had come to start the memorial service. The villagers and travelers gathered there beat shōko gongs, and bade the Mother to join with them and recite ‘Namu Amida Butsu,’ invoking the mercy of the Buddha. The Mother, overcome, lay prostrate on the ground racked with tears of remorse. “You are the boy’s mother,” said the Boatman, “only your prayers can truly bring comfort to his soul. Here, please strike the shōko and pray with us.”

Gently remonstrated, the Mother took up a gong and struck it while chanting the holy words with the rest of the gathered crowd. Trying to overcome her sorrow, with great sincerity she chanted with them, praying for her son’s salvation in the Western Paradise. It is said that in the Western Paradise there are an uncountable number of worlds, and on each one Admida Buddha is revered.

“Namuamidabutsu, Namuamidabutsu, Namuamidabutsu.” the Mother, the travelers, the passers-by, the villagers ~ all chanted together. “Oh, Miyakodori, since you share your name with the Capital, please contribute your song to our prayers” implored the Mother.

Just then, in a clear voice, “Namuamidabutsu” could be heard being chanted from inside the grave mound. “Wait,” said the Mother “Can you hear that voice? It came from inside the grave!” “I’m certain I heard it,” replied the Boatman, “Please, everyone, stop your japan_2010_-2030prayers. Since you’re the boy’s Mother, you should continue to pray.” “Oh, that I might hear your voice again,” said the Mother.

“Namuamidabutsu,” she prayed.

In response Umewakamaru’s voice could be heard: “Namuamidabutsu, Namuamidabutsu.” With these words, his spirit appeared before everyone, ghostly, as one from the world beyond. “Oh, my son, is it really you?” the Mother cried. “Mother!” replied the Spirit of Umewakamaru.

The Mother longed to embrace her son one last time, but the Spirit of Umewakamaru was immaterial. Mother and Child reached for each other, yet could not touch, could never touch again. Seeing him in this way only increased the depth of her love for him, and in her mind she could see all the days of his life. The sky in the east slowly began to brighten, and in turn the Spirit of Umewakamaru began to dim. As the sun climbed higher in the sky, the figure of the child became nothing more than grass. What remained were only the weeds and the grave mound. Here, at the end of all things, nothing more than unkempt grass and the tomb of one now gone.



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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