For this year’s program we chose pieces set in historic sights of the ancient capital, Kyoto.
These locations are still popular destinations, bustling with sightseers to this day.
Please enjoy these stories of bygone times.
Matsuno’o (setting: Matsunoo Taisha)
An old man accompanied by a youth appeared before the Emperor’s retainers who were paying their respects at Matsuo Myojin Shrine to the west of the capital. The pilgrims asked the old man about the shrine’s origins. He explained that the Buddha had appeared to Matsuo Myojin in the guise of a deity to save the souls of all sentient beings. The old man told them to watch the Night Kagura dedication, then suddenly disappeared. When night falls, Matsuo Myojin appears and dances Kagura for the retainers.
Matsunoo Taisha, the setting for this piece, is Kyoto’s oldest Shinto shrine, and it has a sacred spring, called Kame-no-i, on its precincts. The enshrined deity is deeply worshipped across Japan as the ancestral deity of sake brewing. When the shrine was founded, the enshrined deity was worshiped as the deity of farming, infrastructure. During the Heian period (794–1185), the deity was worshiped as the guardian deity of the imperial capital.
In the dance performance, Matsuo Myojin performs an invigorating, fast-paced divine dance, expressing the divine virtues of a young deity. This play is a rare piece handed down in the Hosho School of Noh.
Ominameshi (setting: Mt. Otokoyama, Yawata)
Ono no Yorikaze lives at the foot of Mt. Otokoyama, upon which stands Iwashimizu Hachimangu Shrine. Yorikaze has an affair with a girl in the capital, but he becomes too busy to visit her at all. The girl convinces herself that Yorikaze’s feelings for her have changed, so she commits suicide by jumping into the Hojo River.
A single ominameshi (golden lace) blooms on the mound under which the girl is buried, and Yorikaze believes it to be the girl he loved. As he draws near to it, the flower bends away from him as if it resents him. He blames himself and is deeply saddened, so he too commits suicide in the Hojo River.
The spirits of both Yorikaze and the girl show a Buddhist monk how much they suffer in hell for their misdeed, and before they disappear, they entreat him to help them attain enlightenment.
In the dance performance, Yorikaze expresses how he decided to commit suicide and how he is suffering in hell.
Saigyo-zakura (setting: Mt. Ogura, Saga Arashiyama)
It is spring and the hermitage where Saigyo lives in Okusagano on the outskirts of the capital is abuzz with people eager to see the famous cherry tree in bloom. His peace disturbed by the visitors, Sagyo composed a poem stating that it was the fault of the sakura blossoms. That night, an old man appeared in his dream, berating him about his poem placing blame on the flowers.
Saigyo concedes the point, and the old man confesses that he is the spirit of the ancient sakura tree. The old man extols the virtues of the capital’s beautiful flowers and dances in lament at the swift passing of a spring night. As morning breaks, the tree’s spirit silently disappears along with the fallen sakura petals, and Saigyo awakes from his dream.
Enjoy the performance of Kimio Otsubo, a designated Living National Treasure, as he evokes the world of a peaceful spring evening among the fallen, white flower petals.
Kagetsu (setting: Kiyomizu Temple)
Kagetsu, the protagonist, is a youth who works in a Buddhist temple, announcing mealtimes without taking the tonsure. He also performs the popular dances of the day for visitors before the gates of Kiyomizu Temple, where the sakura are in full bloom.
Kagetsu used to live in Tsukushi in Kyushu before he was abducted by a Tengu, a legendary, supernatural creature with a long nose, when he was seven. His father becomes an itinerant Buddhist priest and set out in search of his missing son. In his travels, he arrives at Kiyomizu Temple and sees Kagetsu dance. While watching the performance, he realizes that the boy is none other than his son and reunites with him.
For this performance, the reuniting scene is omitted. The dance that recounts the origins of Kiyomizu Temple is followed by a dance depicting the hardships Kagetsu suffered during the kidnapping as he was dragged across country, enhancing the joy of his father at finding his son.
Hashi Benkei (setting: Gojo Bridge)
This piece depicts the encounter on Gojo Bridge between Ushiwakamaru, who is dressed as a woman, and Benkei, who is wielding a long sword.
Ushiwakamaru nimbly parries with Benkei and toys with him until he surrenders. Upon finding out that Ushiwakamaru is in fact the famed samurai Minamoto no Yoshitsune, Benkei pledges his loyalty to him, becomes his retainer, and follows Ushiwakamaru back to his Kujo residence.
The tale continues on, claiming that Ushiwakamaru prevents Benkei from killing a thousand men, but in the Noh play, Ushiwakamaru himself Kills the thousand men.
In any case, the contrast between the boy dressed as a woman and the Buddhist priest with the long sword is dramatic, and this is the beginning of a tragic bond between master and servant, the story of which continues in the plays “Funa Benkei” and “Ataka.”
The Kujo residence is thought to be the residence of Ushiwakamaru’s mother, Tokiwa Gozen. The play “Kurama Tengu” occurs the night before Ushiwakamaru enters Kurama Temple as a novice on the behest of his mother who barely tolerates his behavior.
The Gojo Bridge, a thousand years ago, where “Hashi Benkei” is set corresponds to the current-day Matsubara Bridge, which is located just north of today’s Gojo Bridge.
Raiden (setting: Mount Hiei)
Hosshobo, the abbot of the Buddhist temple on Mt. Hiei, was chanting the sutras and burning prayer sticks in the middle of the night when he heard knocking at the door. Hosshobo wondered who it was and found it was the spirit of famed poet and scholar Sugawara Michizane. Hosshobo, who had been Michizane’s teacher, invited him in, and Michizane expressed his gratitude for his teacher’s kindness, rekindling their old friendship. However, Michizane recalled his resentment at being falsely accused by Fujiwara no Tokihira of a crime. He bites a pomegranate that was sitting as an offering on the altar before the statue of Buddha and spat the pieces at the door, which instantly burst into flames. Hosshobo remained calm and extinguished the fire with a water seal. Michizane’s spirit conceals itself in the smoke and disappears.
Hosshobo waits to be reunited with the spirit of Michizane. He suddenly hears a strange melody and sees Michizane appear as the Shinto deity, Tenma Tenjin. Michizane rejoices and shows his gratitude to the Emperor for bestowing on him the divine title of Otomi Tenjin by performing a dance. Eventually, Tenma Tenjin was dedicated at a Shinto shrine in the Kitano neighborhood in the capital to ensure the safety and longevity of the country.
The contrast is striking between the first half of the play where Michizane shows his magic empowered by his bitterness and the graceful second half where he does a complete turn around and performs an exuberant dance.
The title of the play was originally written with the kanji characters for “thunder” and “lightning,” because in the latter half of the story Michizane’s spirit wreaks havoc with lightning. Samurai Maeda Nariyasu, the 13th Maeda lord of the Kaga domain in Kyushu, was a great patron of the Hosho School of Noh, which claims descent from Sugawara no Michizane. Therefore, when the Hosho School performs the play, the second half express Michizane’s congratulatory wishes to the world, instead of showing his wrath in the temple as is depicted in the Kongo School when performing the same play.
Enjoy the superlative performance of renowned Noh actor Takashi Takeda in the lead role.