Noh: Ukon, Yashima (右近、八島)

  • Noh: 右近、八島 (Ukon, Yashima)

7/15/18 (Sun), Tokyo

The rarely performed Ukon is credited to Zeami, Noh’s towering genius, but was apparently revised to an unknown extent by his grandson Nobumitsu. While officially classified as a god-focused Waki Noh, it’s usually considered closer to a “third category piece” or female-centered Woman Noh. One actor told me that the stately Waki Noh tend to be boring and suspects that this piece may have been re-branded along the centuries to increase its appeal. That need may have prompted the grandson’s revision in the text, but it’s hard to know how much was changed or Zeami’s intentions in the absence of a manuscript; given that he was also a performer and thus writing for himself, he may not have been able to resist creating a juicy role in the first place. The play takes place amid the cherry blossoms, an odd choice for this blazingly hot season, but I suppose there aren’t many summer-based Noh plays to choose from compared to the vast number of shows set in spring.

A passing priest is enjoying the famous flower-viewing grounds of Ukon no Baba near Kitano Tenmangu Shrine. When he casually recalls the opening line of a verse by Ariwara no Narihira (見ずもあらず見もせぬ人の…) from Tales of Ise, a woman in a “flower cart” nearby completes the poem. As they talk, it transpires that she is the spirit of one of the cherry trees. She disappears briefly, reemerges as the spirit, dances and exits. Short and to the point, not pretending to be much more than a diversion. Godliness here is next to entertainment. Cultural touchstones in the text such as the poem and the Ukon no Baba setting, presumably familiar to audiences of old, are lost on us, so the emphasis now is on the beauty of the dance itself. One attractive touch was the tall decorated frame serving as the flower cart (whatever that is – it also shows up in the popular Yuya) with the goddess in the middle and two attendants on each side. The latter soon discreetly disappear through the musicians’ low door, but their entrance and brief presence add welcome color to the proceedings. A lovely piece.

Yashima: This iconic work, also by Zeami, is one of only three Noh “warrior hell” pieces that feature the victor. Warriors in Japanese folklore are condemned after death to perpetual battle, but most Noh works star the loser to highlight the futility of war. This piece expertly pursues the same theme through the eyes of the winner.

Two monks seek lodging from a fisherman during their pilgrimage. Being near the site of the major Genpei battle at Yashima some years earlier, they ask him to relate the story. He paints an unusually vivid picture of the scene, noting the bravery of General Yoshitsune and describing several iconic moments like the grabbing of the helmet. The monks ask his name, and, hinting broadly that he himself is Yoshitsune (“Whether I say my name or not is unimportant (yoshi) in this eternal (tsune) floating world” – it works in Japanese), he exits with a promise to reveal himself shortly. A villager appears in the meantime and offers other details of the battle in a long monologue. Before exiting, he tells the monks that the man who just appeared must have been Yoshitsune’s ghost. The priest fall asleep, and in their dreams indeed appears the ghost of Yoshitsune. He tells them how his earthly obsessions have kept him in the hell reserved for warriors and reenacts other parts of the battle in dance, including the famous incident of the retrieval of his dropped bow from the sea and the story of his subsequent victory at Dan-no-Ura. His dance conveys his anguish at having to fight his battles in hell forever to no purpose.

This is a spectacular piece with a compelling story, plentiful action in the battle dances and a deep and evocative theme. As the dances here tend to act out the text (unlike the more flowery Ukon), the show is easy to follow, and the dancer today had a particularly vigorous take on the material in his stomping, turning and sword play. In the extraordinarily moving finale, Yoshitsune realizes after his battle that what he thought was the enemy was just a flock of seagulls, and the battle cries nothing but the sound of the wind, making his victory hollow and meaningless.

The only bummer, a big one, was the looooong drawn out interval speech by the villager, essentially a filler while the main actor is changing costumes. The actor stood completely motionless as he went on and on for nearly half an hour (in real time – it felt much longer). The fact that he can remember all those lines and remain so taut for such an extended period is impressive and apparently a big feather in his cap. But I could see in my brief moments of consciousness that I wasn’t the only one in the audience sleeping through much of it. It really put a damper on the proceedings. This was in stark contrast to a dynamic, highly energetic presentation of the same speech the last time I saw Yashima, which provided a thrilling setup for that great final dance. Ah, well.

The Noh piece itself is still as good as it gets, lifted today by a powerful performance. A deserved classic.

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