A unique introduction for Western theater-goers to classic Japanese drama.
Vollmann's Kissing the Mask , I re-read Arthur Waley's (1889-1966) translations of nineteen Noh plays (with summaries of sixteen others). Though reading a Noh play is much like reading the libretto of an opera, it is unavoidable, probably even for the Japanese, since the classic Noh plays (and that is most of them) are written in the formal language of the fourteenth century Japanese court. In the West, the opportunities to actually see a live performance of a Noh play are rare indeed. Though, of course, Noh grew out of earlier forms of theater and performance, it attained its unique and traditional form in the fourteenth century due largely to the efforts of a father and son team, Kiyotsugu Kwanami (or Kanami) (1333-1384) and Motokiyo Zeami (or Seami or Kanze) (1363-1443/4). Zeami became the theorist of Noh, writing essays about its aesthetics, and composed many of the plays which became the models for later authors. Though the occasional woman was a Noh actor in the far past, all roles have been performed by men for a very long time (some of the troupes are relaxing this somewhat, but the actresses must learn to play the women's roles "with the strength of a man"). The plays translated in full were written in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, 6 or 7 by Zeami. As Waley explains, the ghost stories enable the Noh author to describe, not show, violent and dramatic events; this is advantageous because to show such things would be vulgar, offensive and not yugen .
This is an interesting book historically and for its insight into Buddhist worship in medieval Japan, which makes up for the dryness of the plays themselves. Most of the plays in this anthology were written by Kwanami Kiyotsugu and his son Seami Motokiyo, who were both priests of Amida Buddhism (the older and more traditional form of the two types of Buddhism most practised in in Japan, distinct from Zen). I'm fairly sure human sacrifice was being used allegorically in the play and it wasn't practised in Japanese Buddhism (wouldn't it be news if it was otherwise?) Nevertheless, the necessity of accepting one's sacrifice to an ancient tradition was an interesting thing to note in terms of the Japanese mind, especially considering these plays are not directly connected to Bushido and Zen. The mental conditioning that inflicted Kamikaze on the world has been going on a long time. Not especially appealing in and of itself, but worth dipping into if you are interested in understanding the Japanese.
"When notes fall sweetly and flutter delicately to the ear," that is the ygen of music. The symbol of ygen is "a white bird with a flower in its beak." "To watch the sun sink behind a flower-clad hill, to wander on and on in a huge forest with no thought of return, to stand upon the shore and gaze after a boat that goes hid by far-off islands, to ponder on the journey of wild-geese seen and lost among the clouds" -such are the gates to ygen. One's style should be easy and full of graceful ygen, and the piece selected should be suitable to the audience. IMITATION (Monomane) The appearance of old age will often be best given by making all movements a little late, so that they come just after the musical beat. For the terrifying and the beautiful are as far apart as black and white. YOUNG REAPER: Yes, it was we who were playing. PRIEST: It was a pleasant sound, and all the pleasanter because one does not look for such music from men of your condition. YOUNG REAPER: Unlocked for from men of our condition, you say! Oh hide me from my shame." NOTE ON KANTAN A young man, going into the world to make his fortune, stops at an inn on the road and there meets with a sage, who lends him a pillow. While the inn-servant is heating up the millet, the young man dozes on the pillow and dreams that he enters public life, is promoted, degraded, recalled to office, endures the hardship of distant campaigns, is accused of treason, condemned to death, saved at the last moment and finally dies at a great old age.
In the meantime, comparatively speaking, his first page of Kantan would be presented as follows: KANTAN CHARACTERS: Jiro Kiku (Dream Personages): The Beauty Dancers Gentlemen Private Secretary Celebrated Physician Doctors Female Employee (Before the curtain.) Kiku (Her voice is heard from offstage.) Its so wonderful youve come. Jiro (also offstage) Its been ten years, hasnt it, Kiku? (Kiku enters with a suitcase. She is followed by Jiro, a young man of eighteen, in a double-breasted suit.) (pp. 79-81) The following extract is from The No Plays of Japan: KANTAN Persons Hostess. (She takes the pillow and lays it on the covered dais which represents at first the bed and afterwards the palace.) Rosei (enters). My name is Rosei, and I have come from the land of Shoku.