Water Masks, Water Songs

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Contributed by Linda Ehrlich

In San Antonio, a city with a beautiful RiverWalk that reminds me of Kyoto. The WHERE RIVERS MEET event is in full swing, with film showings, practices for theatrical performances, and arts events. I’ve been helping with this, as guest film curator, for a long time now and it’s exciting to know that it’s underway. Last June [June, 2014] I was an invited speaker at the Noh Training workshop in Bloomsburg, PA, and there I met Kevin Salfen—mastermind of this multi-faceted event. It’s always remarkable how one thing leads to another (perhaps that’s one thing the Buddhist teaching of cause-and-effect is about).

Hurricane Patricia delayed my arrival, unfortunately. It turned out that the flooding and winds weren’t as bad as predicted, but there was no way to know at a distance. So far I’ve enjoyed the gem-like McNay Museum of modern art (in a former private mansion) with its small Japanese garden, and the galleries of the San Antonio Museum of Art with a Japanese art gallery complete with a tokonoma and tatami.

Before leaving Cleveland I wrote intros to two films that feature noh performances [ED: these films were shown on Sunday, Oct. 25, 2015]. Here are excerpts from those intros: [Note: I put Japanese names in Japanese style, with the family name first]

THE MEN WHO TREAD ON THE TIGER’S TAIL (Tora no Ō o fumu otokotachi, 1945/52)

Looking at the span of KUROSAWA Akira’s 50-year career in the cinema from 1943-1990, we can see how he was able to produce moments of quiet epiphany which often remain in the mind of the viewer long after the thrill of the battle has passed. That is the case with today’s little known Kurosawa film Tora no Ō o fumu otokotachi.

THE MEN WHO TREAD ON THE TIGER’S TAIL was made in 1945 but only released in 1952, due to a misreading by both Japanese and American Occupation censors. The former (the wartime Japanese) viewed the film as an insult to revered feudal histories; the latter (the American Occupation censors who reviewed Japanese films between 1945-52) saw The Men who Tread on a Tiger’s Tail as too feudalistic. They were both wrong

MEN_who_treadThis film is based on the noh play Ataka, which later became the kabuki play Kanjinchō. The story itself is based on actual events in Japanese medieval history. In the play, and film, a group of loyal retainers impersonate mountain priests (yamabushi), in an attempt to get their lord Minamoto Yoshitsune across a barrier post to freedom, after Yoshitsune’s half-brother Yoritomo issues an order for his death. These fake yamabushi are supposedly collecting subscriptions for the rebuilding of Tōdaiji temple in Nara (the temple of the Daibutsu)—hence the English translation of the kabuki play as The Subscription List. In the band disguised as the fierce yamabushi in today’s film, you might recognize familiar actors such as Shimura Takashi (IKIRU) and Mori Masayuki (Mizoguchi’s UGETSU).

The noh play is named for one of the barriers the men have to cross—those barriers were real border checkpoints. The presumed author of the original Noh play is Nobumitsu, the seventh son of Zeami’s nephew Onnami. Kurosawa loved the noh theatre and also used it to extraordinary effect in his later film (with the odd English title) Throne of Blood (literally “The Spiderweb’s Castle,” Kumo no sū jo, 1957  ).

The Kabuki play Kanjinchō is a very popular play, even today. According to (my professor) Jim Brandon’s last book Kabuki’s Forgotten War, not only was Kanjinchō extremely popular in the Edo/Tokugawa period of the 17th—mid-19th century, the play was produced 43 times in the wartime years between 1931 and 1945 (That comes to about 3x per year).

So the story is both Noh and kabuki, with its jo-ha-kyu pattern (slow-medium-fast pacing). You’ll see the restricted, stage-like setting of Noh. This works to heighten the dramatic effect. At times, however, you’ll catch a sense of expressive and rapid movement back and forth across the set, as on a kabuki stge. Some of this also reflects the very low budget and small amount of film stock common to much wartime filming.

There is also an exceptional kyōgen aspect to the film. This is because of Kurosawa’s decision to include a comic porter not found in the plays. That role is performed by the great comedian ENOMOTO Kenichi, commonly known as “Enoken.” Think about him in relation to the audience, to us. One clue is in the final tobi-roppo—usually reserved for the great warrior Benkei down the hanamichi (passageway through the audience) in the kabuki play. Film historian Donald Richie wrote that adding Enoken to this story was “like adding Jerry Lewis to a Shakespearean play.” The comic porter role also helped Kurosawa subvert the nationalistic goals of the military authorities who had encouraged him to make the film.

We can also think of this comic porter as a trickster, a “lord of the in-between.” In The Men who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail, we also have the trickster monks, but Kurosawa’s use of that theme reached its grandest moment in Yojimbo (1961) where a clever penniless samurai (rōnin) tries to clean up a decadent town. That film was remade as A Fistful of Dollars starring Clint Eastwood, in a setting more like old San Antonio.

Finally, please notice Kurosawa’s updating of this historical tale with a contemporary cinematic approach. Note the use of wipes and of specific camera angles that reveal who is really noble among this motley group of men. Also you will see Kurosawa’s penchant for 3-part stepped editing from long-shot to medium-close to close-up.

LATE SPRING (Banshun, 1949) introduction:
So what is Ozu’s cinematic world like? Very understated. there are no fancy transitions, no special effects, no evocative music—no,no,no. In fact, the Chinese character he chose for his gravestone is “mu, “or nothingness (a Buddhist concept suggesting, paradoxically, “fullness.”) As Japanese writer KAWABATA Yasunari wrote in his Nobel Prize speech, the Zen sense of nothingness is really “a universe of the spirit in which everything communicates freely with everything, transcending bounds.”

Then again, Ozu’s films are not to be confused with the natural, because they are really highly choreographed and precise. The actors were told where they must sit in relation to the lines at the edges of the tatami mats, how to gesture, where their eyes should focus.

Late_springOzu’s films are full of patterns, symmetries, parallels, cycles and repeated motifs—something film scholar David Bordwell illustrated brilliantly in his book Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema. These might be repetitions of seemingly simple objects (trains running along tracks, laundry hanging from a line), or repetitions of larger structural themes. Ozu also liked to play with his patterns, sometimes tricking us when we expect a certain connection and then giving us something else. Film Scholar Kirsten Thompson wrote: “Ozu’s playfulness is precise but it is also unpredictable.”

As Bordwell wrote: “When a single event finds a spot within all these structures, it gains an enormous narrative richness.” Another writer, Paul Coates, even compared Ozu’s geometric compositions to paintings by Mondrian or by the great Italian painter of still lifes, Morandi.

Here’s a paradox of Ozu’s cinema—you strip down the stories, the action, the camera movement to its bare minimum, and what is left is something so recognizable that it doesn’t matter that the characters are speaking another language and live in another country. Then again, the films also reflect very specific times in modern Japanese history. In the case of LATE SPRING, the setting is post-WWII Japan when the memories of the hardships of wartime were still vivid.

A young director who served as an assistant director to Ozu, and rebelled against him, was Yoshida Yoshishige (aka Yoshida Kiju). Yoshida went on to make his own highly experimental films but, as an older man, re-evaluated his earlier appraisal of Ozu and has written a fascinating book, of short, succinct passages, entitled Ozu’s Anti-Cinema, beautifully translated by Daisuke Miyao and Kyoko Hirano.

In this revisiting of Ozu’s work, Yoshida wrote:

“Viewers do not look at Ozu’s films, but vice versa. In this sense, Ozu-san’s films seem to deny their own existence…Ozu’-san’s films are about looking at humans from the point of view of objects.” To elaborate on the last sentence—it doesn’t mean objectifying the people, but rather how the objects themselves seem to play a role as characters. Ozu leaves us with rooms left empty and quiet, after their owners have departed, rooms that seem to have lives of their own.

Another Japanese film historian, Satō Tadao, earlier wrote a similar estimation of Ozu’s work when he said that “the characters in Ozu’s films always act as if they were aware they were being watched…Yet even when people and the objects around them barely move, their inner beings go through incredible transformations in pursuit of harmony”

The Noh play seen in the film–we believe it is Kakitsubata (The Water Iris), a third category/woman play, based on an episode in the Heian-period classic The Tale of Ise (Ise monogatari). The play is attributed to Zeami although more recently to Komparu Zenchiku. The title refers to how the water iris blooms in mid to late spring. Kakitsubata recounts the time when the Heian-period poet Ariwara no Narihira (a frequent love interest) visited Yatsuhashi. He composes a poem about irises he sees there. The figure of the young woman we’ll see in the play-within-a-play is the spirit of those irises.

But the actual Noh play is never identified in the film, and most Japanese viewers wouldn’t recognize it. What is astonishing is how long the sequence is, and what happens near the end. According to one scholar, this play is “a tribute to the union of man and woman, leading to enlightenment.”

Well, this has been a lot to say about someone who described himself as nothing more than a “tofu maker.”


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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