The kuse section from the August 2, 2014 performance of Hagoromo [羽衣] from the 20th Anniversary season of the Noh Training Project. Featuring participants of the Noh Training Project, and members of Theatre Nohgaku.
The kuse section from the August 2, 2014 performance of Hagoromo [羽衣] from the 20th Anniversary season of the Noh Training Project. Featuring participants of the Noh Training Project, and members of Theatre Nohgaku.
Contributed by Jeff Crane
Many years ago I was driving out of Yellowstone National Park through the West Entrance, following the beautiful Madison River, and noticed a man standing on a boulder in the middle of it, casting repeatedly without his fly making contact with the water. I knew immediately what he was doing and, being a wisenheimer in my youth, pulled over to observe. Just a few days earlier I had pretended to shop in a fly-fishing store in Jackson Hole, shocked at the exorbitant prices for flies and poles. As I wandered the store fantasizing about new gear, I overheard one man who, on hearing about the outstanding fishing at Henry’s Fork (legendary trout waters), responded, “I didn’t fly here from California to fish in Idaho.” Other tourists dropped thousands of dollars on poles, nets, dry flies, and waders. As a native Northwesterner I was trained to dislike a certain kind of tourist, and the guy on the rock seemed to fit into this category. He was trying to shadowcast like Paul Maclean in the movie A River Runs through It. I knew this and so deliberately ruined his moment by watching him until he gave up. After that, he stepped into the river and worked his way upstream the way a fly fisherman should.
I had forgotten this incident until asked to introduce the movie, the first in the film series for the project Where Rivers Meet. As I reflected on Robert Redford’s 1992 film and its impact on me, I recalled this event and how for years I had told the story for laughs over beer. Now the sins of my callow youth became clear to me. Like many of us, that would-be shadowcaster was seeking beauty, transcendence, maybe even the sublime.
There is a belief amongst fly fishermen in the West that the film version of A River Runs through It ruined fly fishing, its popularity creating a boom of fly fishing pretenders for several years. Over time I became one of those who complained about tourists ruining our rivers and places of beauty. What I conveniently forgot was that the movie and the novel were what led me to fly fishing too. Except for the money, I was similar to those fly fishing tourists. I had fished my entire life. From running a trot line for catfish in Mississippi to tossing a Mepps lure for trout in the Cascades of Washington to trolling a silver spoon and chartreuse squid for salmon in Puget Sound, I had certainly known fishing waters. But fly fishing had remained foreign. Inspired by the beauty of the movie and novel and what this type of fishing seemed to offer, I endeavored to make myself a fly fisherman. And this has meant everything to me.
My days and evenings fishing the North Fork of the Clearwater (which Norman Maclean regularly fished), Kelly Creek, Henry’s Fork, and the Solduc, watching a cutt rise to slurp down a parachute adams, or seeing the flashing bright colors of a rainbow fighting through riffles, are a consequence of my seeing this film. Learning to read, work, and truly understand a river with a fly rod, and thereby escaping the pressures and anxieties of modern life while better comprehending nature and my place in it, is a gift of this film and novel.
As for Redford’s film, which won an Oscar for best cinematography and was nominated in other categories, I think it is his best work. The movie, like the novel, captures the beauty of the western landscape and the ability to temporarily transcend our limitations through immersion in nature. It is a beautiful and haunting story about loving someone bent on self-destruction, and so it is a story with themes that cut across culture and time. But the novel initially met with resistance from publishers. One rejection letter noted disapprovingly that there were trees in the story. Finally, in support of one of their beloved professors, the University of Chicago Press published it in 1976, making Maclean’s work the first fiction the press ever published.
The movie is great, but the novel is a treasure. And one that is not nearly as well-known as it should be. This might be because it has been classified as “western literature,” a category that novelist and essayist Wallace Stegner felt unfairly rendered great literature set in the West as merely “regional literature.” It might also be due to the fact that Maclean started writing fiction late in life, after retirement, and so did not build a strong following of readers. Another factor might be the rise of a more varied field of literature featuring the perspectives of people historically and culturally marginalized on the basis of race, ethnicity, and sexuality. In such a literary milieu A River Runs through It may feel overly masculine and traditional. It deserves greater empathy. Journalist and novelist Pete Dexter writes of the novel that it “filled holes inside me that had been so long in the making that I’d stopped noticing they were there. It is a story about Maclean and his brother, Paul, who was beaten to death with a gun butt in 1938. It is about not understanding what you love, about not being able to help. It is the truest story I ever read; it might be the best written. And to this day it won’t leave me alone.”
Those lauding the novel often cite the passage describing the use of Mrs. Maclean’s metronome to teach the rhythm of fly casting or quote the stunningly beautiful closing passage. I want to consider a different passage from the novel, one that captures the precision and beauty of Maclean’s writing, relates to key themes in Where Rivers Meet, and is conveyed effectively in the film.
The passage describes a quiet moment on a riverbank as Norman and the father watch Paul Maclean fish. It conveys the sense that older brother Norman has of being less than Paul in his father’s eyes and his father’s effort to correct it. “While my father was watching my brother, he reached over to pat me, but he missed, so he had to turn his eyes and look for my knee and try again. He must have thought that I felt neglected and that he should tell me he was proud of me also but for other reasons.” From there he describes Paul moving through the powerful waters of the Big Blackfoot in language that any fly fisherman would recognize as accurate. “It was a little too deep and fast where Paul was trying to wade the river, and he knew it. He was crouched over the water and his arms were spread wide for balance. If you were a wader of big rivers you could have felt with him even at a distance the power of the water making his legs weak and wavy and ready to swim out from under him. He looked downstream to estimate how far it was to an easier place to wade.” Then the father’s deep knowledge of his son, of his personal quirks, his recklessness and tendency toward self-destruction, is revealed in a passage reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver in its ability to suggest much through restrained, minimalist prose. “My father said, ‘He won’t take the trouble to walk downstream. He’ll swim it.’ At the same time Paul thought the same thing, and put his cigarette and matches in his hat.”
What follows is a passage of pure beauty as Maclean reveals the fondness of the older brother for the lost younger one and, at the same time, captures what was best about their lives on one of those glorious days shared by a father and his sons on the bank of the Big Blackfoot River.
“…However, one closeup picture of him at the end of this day remains in my mind, as if fixed by some chemical bath. Usually, just after he finished fishing he had little to say unless he saw he could have fished better. Otherwise, he merely smiled. Now flies danced around his hatband. Large drops of water ran from under his hat on to his face and then into his lips when he smiled. At the end of this day, then, I remember him both as a distant abstraction in artistry and as a closeup in water and laughter.
My brother said, ‘I’m pretty good with a rod, but I need three more years before I can think like a fish.’
Remembering that he had caught his limit by switching to George’s No. 2 Yellow Hackle with a feather wing, I said without knowing how much I said, ‘You already know how to think like a dead stone fly.’
We sat on the bank and the river went by. As always, it was making sounds to itself, and now it made sounds to us. It would be hard to find three men sitting side by side who knew better what a river was saying.”
As in Sumida River and Curlew River, in A River Runs through It rivers and nature are intertwined with loss and, to varying degrees, memory and redemption. This moving narrative of youth entwined with nature, of the transcendence and solace found in casting a fly to a four-count rhythm, and of the struggle to understand why some people simply will not be helped, speaks to us in the same manner as Where Rivers Meet speaks to us of love and loss. Noh theater, British opera, and American literature and cinema remind us of the power of nature, not as a backdrop but as the living stage on which we act out our lives and even as a character in our individual and collective stories.
Dr. Jeff Crane,
Associate Dean, College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences
University of the Incarnate Word
Visit Jeff Crane’s author page on Amazon.
Contributed by Matthew R. Dubroff
For the middle two weeks of July 2015, Theatre Nohgaku had the wonderful opportunity to conduct a residency rehearsal at the Ko Festival in Amherst, Massachusetts. The focus of the process was the staging of Carrie Preston‘s play Zahdi Dates and Poppies with music composed by David Crandall, under the direction of Jubilith Moore. Four of us were there for the full two weeks, while one group of TN members was present for the first week and a different group came in for the second week. The play had not been staged at all and this will have been the main rehearsal prior to an upcoming performance in the spring of 2016 in Boston. The two weeks were extremely productive and I hope to document some of how we worked and what we created. Finally, no matter what occurs in a final production next spring, what happened during this process amounted to good and highly valid theatre.
The two-week rehearsal schedule was tightly coordinated and wonderfully crafted by Jubilith Moore. The first week our focus was on developing a basic sense of the text and score and crafting as much of the physical staging as possible. A line-by-line group recitation of the text led by David Crandall was conducted first with focus on accurate readings of the notation as well as nuanced articulation of the numerous transitions within the text. Crandall’s score superbly enhances the sharp variances in the mood of the text that occur sometimes from one line to the next. Along with the usual range of noh vocal production, Crandall’s score also incorporated elements of western musical notation. This is a technique he has used before as in Crazy Jane where several lines of Gregorian Chant were integrated into the score. In Zahdi there is much more extensive use of western musical notation interwoven throughout the entire piece. Even at this early phase of our work, the task was set out to the performers to see where on the spectrum from “bel canto” to “noh” these sung sections should be. Similarly, for all of the text, we were encouraged to consider the full meaning of the written word and to allow for some variance of vocalization based on English speech patterns. For those of us used to singing phonetic noh with little sense of grammar and a generalized sense of meaning, this proved a pleasant challenge.
Following the vocally focused work, the play was divided into 4 sections. For each section we followed a basic rehearsal structure. From one section of the play to the next all of the roles were switched so that a performer playing a main character for one section might play flute for the next and then sing chorus after that. This afforded a very open, broad perspective on the entire play from a variety of performance perspectives. The sequence of work involved three phases. During the first phase we were broken into three or four groups. Typically, Moore and Preston would spend this first phase consulting. Musicians would practice their music in isolation, frequently under the guidance of Richard Emmert. Chorus and main characters would practice under the guidance of David Crandall or by themselves focusing on the sung sections of text. The second phase brought main characters together with Moore and Preston to work on a skeletal staging. Simultaneously, the musicians worked with available chorus or main characters. Finally, for the third phase, all members were brought together to stage the completed section. With some variance based on the demands of the section of the play this was how we proceeded through the entire show. In a fairly short time we had a fully stageable version of the play that was warmly called the “hit by a bus” version of the play. This rough form of the play still contained some of the core essentials of the text work that would manifest as we continued our mining of the material.
This first run through involved major pauses in the proceedings as we needed to stop in between sections and switch roles for all six of the performers. We had the liberty to stop where things went off the tracks or where there was a need for a change to help bring out the story and meaning of the text. After several “work throughs” in this manner it was decided that we would attempt to teach each other the various sections we had created so that the play could be executed in a smoother fashion. This occurred at the conclusion of our first week of work. The qualities of this first full staging of the play were most noh-like compared to the later versions. With obvious deviances from traditional noh practice, the staging maintained a fairly solid kamae and suriashi throughout. Typical kata were employed with some mixing and matching between the Hosho and Kita Schools of noh for certain dance sequences. New kata and movement patterns on stage were also employed based on the demands of the text. One main character, the husband, sits fully on stage rather than with one or both legs folded under. This evoked the sense that he was a member of the U.S. Military instead of the typical Japanese/noh priest who sits in the waki location on stage. In another instance, three main characters move simultaneously in a coordinated sequence on stage. I refrain from using the terms shite and waki as we were encouraged not to do so from the outset. The plan for the Boston performance is that one character will be masked.
As our second week of work began, three troupe members left and three came. Quickly we brought people up to speed in an abbreviated format of the previous week’s work. In this case we focused on getting a fresh staging with people remaining constant in their roles. The play was “taught” in a much quicker fashion. With this base version re-done, we commenced an exploration to move the performance mode away from traditional noh with as much liberty as was appropriate to the text, under the guidance of the three creators of the piece, Preston, Crandall and Moore. Vocally, sections of spoken dialogue were allowed to have a full “naturalistic” reading. At times, when not dancing, certain characters were allowed to walk with no regard for kamae and suriashi. Musically, Crandall incorporated a section of overlap and harmony between two characters. The husband character, a Marine fighter pilot, was given a folded paper airplane to use in place of a fan. As this radical experimentation progressed more and more paper planes were used in dance sequences and at dramatic moments of the text. A final divergence of note from traditional noh, is that characters hold hands with each other. This version of the play was staged mid-week and represents an extreme end of the spectrum of Theatre Nohgaku’s work.
With some time left to us, significant group discussion was had regarding the ramifications of the radical changes in style with regards to their impact on the meaning of the text. Substantive questioning of the noh-basis of our work also took place. Finally, we altered and reworked several major components of the play. The radical transitions of the text and the music were brought into strong relief as the staging itself began to reflect the specific musical and ultimately emotional rhythms of the work. With much care and openness to experiment, a full third version of the play was staged in an open rehearsal that was well attended in our studio rehearsal space.
Based on the audience response and connected with our own perceptions, after two weeks of work we had created three significantly different, yet viable performances of the text. The differences were based on the various performers’ expressive abilities as well as the interpretive mode within which we worked. What the next iteration of the play will be when it reemerges in Boston in spring 2016 will be derived from this work and will vary, once again. Nevertheless, most significantly, this process had all of the hallmarks of good, basic theatre. Starting from a central text and score, all of our interpretive sensibilities, theatrical skills and training were put to use in a collaborative environment of exploration, discovery and, finally, expression. While this has been a long-held belief of mine, this work strongly confirmed, that despite any apparent exotic qualities, at its core noh is fundamental and powerful theatre. It is an exciting next step for Theatre Nohgaku to be doing this sort of work with vital and important new works.
Contributed by John Oglevee
There is great satisfaction in being in a show that run’s for a long time. In addition to the financial benefits, it’s gratifying to know that a great number of people can see your work, and that you are engaged with a large audience. A long run though, is ultimately a presentation of product. Certain companies are engaged with their work daily and continue to evaluate the work in a constant process oriented methodology. I admire that.
Traditionally noh is a one-off event. “That” group of performers, gathers “that” one time, to perform “that” one piece. Even though it’s from the classical repertory, it’s the first time and only time it will be performed that way. It’s an ephemeral event.
I’ve been truly privileged to be involved in Allan Marett‘s new noh Oppenheimer, which we’ve approached in a very traditional way. As it is a new piece we’ve luxuriated in 5 days of rehearsal, but the majority of the work, was done before we arrived. The intellectual part of the process, the pattern learning, the order, intention, was our individual work. Then under the watchful eye of the project creators, we took some days to let the work seep into our bodies. This kind of work needs to live in you, if you are thinking about what comes next, it’s too late. It’s hard to describe the kind of concentration that’s required. I think ideally, when one dons the mask for the performance, a mild possession would take place where the subconscious guides the performance as the conscious mind engages with the other entities onstage: the waki, the chorus, the musicians.
When the occasional magic happens, I can watch the performance from the audience in a bizarre astral projection kind of way. I can see what the audience sees, as if I’m watching with them. It’s being “in the moment,” but not in the way I did my Strasberg training in college. I’m striving to be not simply one with the character, but one with the room, audience, performer, and material.
I am so grateful to have one more opportunity to share the space with everyone involved in this project. Thank you Allan for the words, Rick for the score, Hide for the mask, Omura-sensei for your guidance and Matsui-sensei for your confidence in me to rise to the challenge.
I will do my best.
Contributed by David Surtasky
a third category play by an unknown author
Quite some time ago in Kyoto lived a samurai named Taira no Munemori. Part of the Heike clan, he was considered powerful and important by many people. One of his consorts was a beautiful and wealthy woman named Yuya, who was the mistress of an inn located in Ikeda some distance from the capital. Now Munemori was not an especially cruel man, but he was accustomed to having his way in all matters.
It so happened that Yuya’s mother had fallen quite ill, and she’d asked that Yuya come be by her side at what might be her final hours. Yuya had in turn asked Munemori for permission to leave, but he had refused.
There was a woman named Asagao who served Yuya at her inn. Asagao had sent a number of messengers to Yuya, to tell her of elderly Mother’s plight. Since Yuya had remained in Kyoto for so long, Asagao herself had set out to bring Yuya back home. It was a fine spring, and the fragrance of flowers filled the air. It was a long journey from Ikeda to Kyoto, and Asagao had hurried from inn to inn sleeping only briefly, rising before the sun and leaving early each morning. Finally she arrived in the capital at the mansion where Yuya was staying, and swiftly sought her out.
Yuya was deeply distressed. She could not help but worry about her mother. She thought of the rain and dew, how it nurtured the plants of the world and let the flowers bloom. In this way, one’s parents were like the blessed rain, allowing people to grow and prosper. For these reasons, people owed great obligation to their parents for all they had done for them. Meeting Asagao at the gates of the mansion, Yuya said; “I am so worried. Please tell me, how is my mother?”
Although she was happy to see Yuya, Asagao was sorely distressed and replied; “Your mother is gravely ill.” Asagao delivered the letter she carried to Yuya, asking her to read it without delay. In reading the letter, Yuya became even more upset. It was clear that her mother was growing weaker and weaker. “Come with me,” Yuya said to Asagao, “I must meet with Lord Munemori immediately, and ask him to read this letter. Perhaps he’ll be kind and allow me to leave at once.”
Yuya arrived in the Lord’s hall, and was ushered before him. “Lord Munemori, most humbly I must say that my Mother is gravely ill. Asagao has just come all the way to Kyoto with a letter from her, and I beg that you would take just a moment and read it” Yuya said. “A letter from you Mother?” replied Munemori tersely, “I don’t really need to look at it, just read it aloud.”
In a trembling voice, Yuya read the letter:
The days are long gone since the Emperor Wu spent pleasant spring evenings in the palace with Lady Li, her death having ended those joyous days like a brittle dream. Even though Emperor Xuanzong and his precious wife viewed the autumn moon together and promised to stay with each other eternally, those days have vanished as well. We can understand that even the revered Gautama Buddha himself could not escape the inevitable arrival of his own death.
In February I told you that my body, like an aging cherry tree, couldn’t wait just a bit longer for the blossoms of spring. Even now I’m filled only with worry and weakness. Like an old bush warbler who may not live to see blossoms again, I weep each day without you.
Please, speak to the Lord Munemori, and receive his permission to come be at my side that I might look on your face once more. It is said that only once in the cycle of reincarnation we might be together as mother and child. My only wish is to see you again in this world, before I pass on to the next. Lord Narihira’s mother wrote a poem to him, saying “When it is said that with age, separation is inevitable, then I grow to miss you all the more.” Lord Narihira, busy with his duties to the Imperial Court wrote in response “If only separation were to vanish from the mortal world, for the sake of children who pray for the long lives of their parents.”
“As you have heard,” Yuya continued, “My Mother is in gravely ill, and wants nothing more than to see me one final time. Please, I beg of you, let me return to her at once.”
Lord Munemori was unmoved. “Although I regret to hear of your Mother’s illness, I must say that I desire nothing more than to view the cherry blossoms in your company this spring. In asking to leave, does that mean you care nothing for me?” Yuya was crestfallen; “With deep respect, the cherry blossoms bloom each spring. There will be yet another spring that we can enjoy them together, yet this will no doubt be the last spring for my Mother. Please, give me leave to go to her at once I beg you.”
There seemed to be little compassion in Lord Munemori’s response: “No. You may not. Don’t be concerned, we’ll ride together in the same carriage to see the cherry blossoms and offer each other comfort. Come, let’s depart at once.” Munemori ordered his ox keepers to prepare the carriage. The Lotus Sutra says that we should leave the burning house, and so to leave all worldly attachment behind, yet Yuya was hesitant to do such a thing. Climbing into the carriage, she was filled with remorse and could think only of her dear Mother.
As the carriage moved out across Kyoto, Yuya was unmoved by the many famous sights. Traveling towards the cool Kamo River and Kiyomizu-dera, the river rushed and chuckled, and the blossoms could be seen on Mount Otowa. Looking to the East, Yuya felt the strain in her heart while gazing off towards the road that led towards her home.
Early rain in the spring brings flowers swiftly to bloom. Warm autumn evenings slow the fall of the leaves. Beyond the mountains, there are more mountains. Beyond the roads, more roads are yet to come. The mountains are majestic, and the clouds moving over them more majestic still. Sometimes people are full of joy, and sometimes filled with sorrow. Everywhere in the world all things exist at once, joy and sadness, love and anger, new beginnings and the end of all things.
On the bridges and on the roads of Kyoto, there were many people, old and young, men and women, common people and Lords and Ladies as well. Everywhere, happy people in their best robes, city people and farmers, dressed in wonderful colors and looking like fresh spring flowers. All around them, like fragrant smoke, the cherry blossoms were in full bloom.
As the carriage passed by the shrine to Ksitigarbha in Rokuhara, Yuya prayed to the to the Bodhisattva of Mercy enshrined there. ‘Please, offer protection to my Mother,’ she said quietly. The carriage moved on, passing Otagi and came to the intersection of Rokudō. Rising from the hill of Toribe, the smoke from bodies being cremated could be seen rising into the hazy air. To the north, honking geese flew low over the river, away towards the Big Dipper just beginning to shine in the sky. Finally, the carriage arrived at Kiyomizu-dera. Yuya climbed from the carriage, and went before the Deity of Mercy to pray.
Meanwhile, Lord Munemori had joined the rest of his party and sat looking out across the basin of Kyoto. “Where is Yuya?” he asked. His retainer answered, “She is still at Kiyomizu-dera, my Lord.” Lord Munemori felt irritated; “Why is she dilly dallying? Go and tell her to come here at once.” The retainer scurried off and sought out Mistress Asagao: “Mistress Asagao, the party is already underway! Please bring Lady Yuya at once!” “Of course,” said Asagao.
Lady Yuya came at Lord Munemori’s bidding and joined the party. Although she was sad, she had such a charming personality and fair appearance that everyone was gladdened by her arrival. “Look at the blossoms!” Yuya said, “It is a splendid view from here. Perhaps we should make some poems to express ourselves?”
If our minds are full of worry, our poems will express them. We have no influence over life itself, nor should we lament it. Butterflies swirl like snow, they dance and move among the flowers. Above the willow tree, Bush Warblers fly like chips of gold. In the river, blossoms float still fragrant. As evening falls, the bell tolls, mingling with clouds in the azure sky.
The bells of Gion and Kiyomizu-dera sound, and remind us that life has no permanence. The cherry flower of Jishu-gongen is white, in memory of the sal tree’s turning in the minute of Gautama Buddha’s death. It is an inevitable law. That which flourishes cannot escape the ravages of time. All living things, like this tree, will come to their timely end. In the distance, the mountains are adrift in clouds. Are they truly clouds, or only cherry blossoms?
In the south the shrine of Ima-gumano floats in a haze, and the Deity of Kumano is enshrined there. Like mist, the deity’s protection covers all creatures with soft mercy. Around Inari Daisha, the leaves are green; although we can imagine them in their full scarlet hew. Here, at Kiyomizu-dera, the long spring passes in immeasurable time. Ten thousand, ten of ten thousand, blossoms are arrayed before us.
On Mount Otowa, blossoms fall like snow.
“No one may understand the deep love I have for my mother,” Yuya thought to herself as she gracefully poured a cup of sake for the reclining Lord Munemori. “Yuya,” Lord Munemori said “won’t you dance for us?” To the sound of flutes and drums, Yuya danced elegantly while gripped in utter sadness.
“There,” Yuya said, “look how the spring rain makes the cherry blossoms scatter. Are the raindrops nothing more than tears from the sky, mourning the swift passage of this too brief season?“ Yuya drew a strip of paper from her sleeve and wrote a poem on it, and, placing on her fan, passed the poem to Lord Munemori. “What can I do?” the poem read, “Although I long for the springtime in Kyoto, even now the cherry blossom in the east is fading.”
Reading this poem, Lord Munemori knew at once that Yuya referred to her mother, and in that moment his heart was opened to her longing and distress. “Your worry is sincere,” Lord Munemori said quietly, “and I now also grieve for your mother. Go to your home in the east!” “You give me leave to go?” Yuya replied. “Yes,” he said, “go quickly now.”
Lady Yuya gathered her few things, and made ready to go. “I am most grateful,” she said to Lord Munemori and left the blossom viewing party. Hurrying away, lest Lord Munemori change his mind, she departed as the evening birds began to call. As she left Kyoto, she stopped at Mount Osaka and looked back at the mountains now to her west. Geese flew overhead. As she traveled east, back to her mother’s side, she felt pangs of longing for Kyoto as well.
[Editor’s Note: Shakkyo (石橋) is a felicitous piece, most often performed at the conclusion of a full program of noh. The shishimai dance (lion dance) performed near the play’s conclusion is energetic and intentionally exciting. According to the-noh.com “Shakkyō is classified into one of the hiraki-mono. Hiraki-mono is a kind of an initiation ceremony in the Noh world, which demonstrates that the performer has reached a specific level of learning in his or her Noh training.” As such, the below summary of this piece does scant justice to the physically demanding aspect of the performance, and it can be said that the summary is of little value without the splendid dance. Nevertheless, this summary is offered as an お歳暮 (year end gift) with hopes that it bring good fortune and auspiciousness to all who read it. Please, perhaps take the opportunity to share it with your friends.]
Contributed by David Surtasky
a fifth category play by an unknown author
Many, many years ago there was a Chinese Monk named Jakushō, who had also once been known as Ōe no Sadamoto. He had given up his former name when he renounced the world, and had chosen to devote himself the Way of Buddha. Over the years he had traveled, visiting India and worshiping at many famous places there. He continued his pilgrimage when he returned to China, traveling to various temples, and eventually found himself before the spectacular Mount Shōryōzen. He had heard of the mountain, and also of the famed stone bridge that stood there. He had in his mind that he would wait for a passerby, and perhaps someone from the area might arrive and tell him the story of the bridge. Then, he felt, he might cross over it and visit the mountain.
It was a fine day in early summer, and a Young Woodcutter was making his way towards the bridge. The day was so pleasant, and the breeze so refreshing, that the burden of firewood he carried felt as light as snow. The sun was only beginning to flee to the horizon, and in the distance he could hear the song of lumberman and the flutes of those tending to their flocks. Truly, the world was a transient place, and all people carried the burdens of their karma as they traveled through it. Yet still, the Young Woodcutter thought, it might be understood to be pleasant enough while it lasted.
The Young Woodcutter had walked deep down the mountain paths, and behind him clouds grew in the East. Remembering other travelers who might have lost their way, he could understand how they felt. He could hear the sound of the river dashing in the gorge by the mountain, but the wind was motionless through the pine trees. It seemed as if time itself stood still in the verdant green of his surroundings.
Jakushō saw the boy approach, and stood by the path calling out to him “Pardon me, woodcutter! I’m so sorry to trouble you, but may I ask a question?” “Yes,” said the Woodcutter, “what is it that you want?” Jakushō replied, “Can you tell me, is this the famous Stone Bridge?” “Why of course!” said the Woodcutter, “It is the most famous Stone Bridge, for beyond it lies the Pure Land. Certainly, confronting such a thing, you should pray most sincerely!”
“Ah,” declared Jakushō, “Then this is the bridge I have heard of! Knowing this to be so, I must put my faith in the hands of Buddha and cross over it without delay!”
The Woodcutter looked troubled at his suggestion. “Just a moment,” he said, “for many years holy men and saints have dedicated themselves to their training, suffered the greatest austerities, spent years in this place and at long last were able to cross this precarious bridge. I’ve heard it said that even a lion bides its time when approaching its smallest desire. Do you think, truly, that you have attained such strength of spirit – greater than these other devout men – that you should be able to simply cross the bridge as soon as you arrive? Do you believe your fortitude is so great? Your thinking is a bit dangerous, I believe.”
Jakushō felt keenly disappointed. “Well,” he said, “looking at it in that way, I presume that you feel that simple Buddhist training would not be enough …”
“Look here,” the Woodcutter said “this great waterfall cascading into the gorge starts in the clouds and thunders down deeply into the mist.” “Yes, I can see,” said Jakushō, “the bridge is quite narrow, and barely fixed in the rocks.”
Green with slick moss, and high above the gorge, the nature of the bridge makes steps unsteady. Floating above the gorge as if floating in the air, it takes one’s thoughts away. Although straight, it is as narrow as a single foot. “Look! Beneath the bridge, the mist is as impenetrable and formless as Hell. One can understand, attempting to cross the bridge might be perilous indeed,” said the Woodcutter. The Stone Bridge had stood here since the origin of the world, hewn by the Gods with rain and dew so they themselves might cross it. This bridge is so named 天浮橋 (Ame-no-ukihashi; the Floating Bridge of Heaven.)
Throughout the world there are bridges of many sorts. Bridges have great merit, allowing us to go from here to there, to rise above disasters, to succeed in many endeavors.
Yet, human hands did not work this stone bridge.
In the distance, waves crash and thunder almost like storms in the heavens. The mountains, rivers and lakes tremble, the earth and sky are not still. The Stone Bridge looks like a rainbow as the sun begins to set.
Looking down into the gorge far below the bridge, Jakushō felt his knees shake. As the cool, moist air rose from the depths, it seemed as if his blood began to freeze. So doing, he felt he was confronting his own transience. He began to understand without the help of the Gods and Buddha’s, no one might be able to cross over into the Pure Land. From the far bank by the mountain he could hear the music of the shō, mingled with flute and harps. As frightening as it was, it was wondrous as well.
The Woodcutter looked at Jakushō. “Perhaps,” he said, “if you cast off your impatience and waited here for just a bit, your understanding of this mystery would increase.” So saying Young Woodcutter became thin like the mist, and with the early summer breeze disappeared. In awe, Jakushō decided to wait at the foot of the bridge, and perhaps some greater miracle might be revealed.
At the moment the sun was just beneath the peak of mountain, and the moon just above the trees, a messenger of Manjusri Bodhisattva appeared in the form of a fearsome lion. Before the amazed monk Jakushō, the lion began to dance. The music of the Gods accompanied this celestial creature, and the sweet scent of peonies filled the air. The lion shook its head, and flowers began cascading from heaven. Playfully, the lion graced the petals with its paws, and rolled about in the carpet of color. Beat the drums, sound the flute! Indeed, this was the Lion King, who carried Manjusri Bodhisattva on his back. The trees and flowers bowed before the Buddha, as the lion celebrated the desire for peace in the world.
Contributed by David Surtasky
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.
On 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.
It 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.
“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:
A 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 shore. 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.
“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 prayers. 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.