Betrayal and Becoming

The betrayal of a woman by a man she might have expected she could trust is a recurrent theme in Japanese literature, mythology, and folklore, and in the stories selected for Mystical Abyss.  This article presents some examples and proposes one creative way to prepare–or for teachers to prepare students–for the experience of Mystical Abyss.

A Noh Play and a Fairytale

In the Noh play Kurozuka  (The Black Mound), a Buddhist monk and his followers are traveling through a northern province of Japan and arrive at the foot of a mountain as darkness falls.   They approach a lonely house inhabited by an aged lady who first denies their request for lodgings because of the decrepit state of her dwelling.  However, because her house is the only one in the area and it is too late for the travelers to move on in search of other accommodations, she finally relents and allows them to stay.  During the evening, she shows them her spinning wheel, then tells them that she must go outside to gather firewood.  She exacts a promise from them not to look into her bedroom during her absence, but of course, one of them does look and discovers several dead bodies.  When the woman returns and realizes what has happened, she transforms herself into an ogre and chases the men, who fear that she might eat them.  Ultimately–as commonly happens in Noh plays–she is subdued by the ardent prayers of her quarry and, I always like to think, by the compassion of the audience as well.  (In the West, this practice of participating in the action by lending one’s own heart is not ritualized as in Noh, but if you ever clapped to save Tinkerbell, the concept should not seem entirely foreign.)

Kurozuka, Tsukioka Kogyo

In the Japanese fairytale called The Crane Wife,   a lonely sail-maker finds an injured crane outside the door of his hut after a storm.  Gently, he cradles it in his arms, brings it inside, and nurses it back to health.  At some later time, a lovely young woman appears at the sail-maker’s house.  Eventually, he and the woman marry, but life is harsh, and the two are scarcely able to earn enough to feed themselves.  Finally, the wife offers to weave a special sail, on one condition:  her husband must not look into the room where she does her work.   The sail she produces is so fine that it fetches a high price, but before long the couple again find themselves destitute, and this time the husband, overcome with curiosity, peers into the weaving room while his wife is at work.  There he sees her, in the form of a crane, weaving her feathers—her own substance—into the wonderful cloth.  Seeing that he has broken his promise, she cries out in despair, takes wing, and is gone forever.

Crane on a gift-wrapping cloth

Goddess Stories

Mystical Abyss relates two stories from ancient Japanese mythology in which a woman also feels betrayed by a man, and as in Kurozuka and The Crane Wife, each betrayal involves the violation of sacred territory.   When Izanagi follows his wife Izanami to the land of Yomi, she expressly asks him not to look upon her in the darkness.  When he nonetheless lights a flare to look, she is horribly transformed and pursues him, accompanied by furies.   Her first instinct is retaliation:  “If thou do this, I will in one day strangle to death a thousand of the folks of thy land!”  The traditional Noh mask pictured here is called Deijya; in Mystical Abyss, the irate Izanami will wear a mask inspired by this one.

Deijya, from Omote the Kanze Soke Noh Collection

If the story of Izanami has some motifs in common with Kurozuka, that of Amaterasu, the tutelary goddess of Japan, shares with The Crane Wife a man’s violation of the domain in which a woman practices her creative arts.   After several acts of desecration that Amaterasu wincingly tolerates, her impetuous brother Susanoo violates her sacred weaving hall.  Scandalized, Amaterasu withdraws into a cave.   Her first instinct is retreat.  The part of Mystical Abyss that retells this story refers, in language and choreography, to the Noh play Ema, a “god play” that narrates the retreat and reemergence of Amaterasu. 

Ema, Tsukioka Kogyo

Japanese folklore and mythology seem to express, at nearly every turn, a concern with male incursion on feminine mysteries.  In Yuki-onna a woodcutter (or other male protagonist, depending on the version) must not divulge a secret that the Snow Woman has entrusted to him, and in Urashima Taro the enchantment depends on Taro’s not opening a magical box the Sea Princess has given him.  Men invariably fail these tests.

Collective Memory, Ty Michelfelder (used by permission)

The other major story line in Mystical Abyss is Iroquois rather than Japanese.   Upon hearing that his wife is pregnant, Sky Woman’s husband creates an abyss and pushes her into it, ejecting her from their home in the idyllic Sky Country and propelling her into free fall toward the sea.   Fire Dragon meets her in mid-air and offers her grain and meat.  Far below, concerned animals hurry to curb her fall.  Her first instinct is receptivity:   she allows others to help her.

Crucially, in Mystical Abyss each woman finds a way to respond to injury and reassert her creative power.   (For a more complete narration of each story, as told in traditional sources, see

Fan, Ty Michelfelder (used by permission)

Entering the Mystical Abyss

Art transforms the artist, as anyone who writes or paints or performs can attest, but the purpose of art is to help members of its audience transform themselves.   In this spirit, I invite you to undertake an exercise that will both orient you to the show and demonstrate at least one way to relate the experience of live theater to your own life.  

  1. Consider a contemporary or historic experience of betrayal–maybe in your own experience or that of someone you know, or of a group of people with whom you are able to identify.
  2. Write a poem, a story, a journal entry, or one or more dramatic scenes that reenact the betrayal and revisit the victim’s reaction.   How did it feel to experience the injustice, insult, or violence?  What did you or the victim do in response?  If you are more interested in exploring an alternative response, follow that trail instead.  The idea that excites you is the one you will express most effectively.
  3. Optionally discuss your work with one or more interested people.  Students will benefit from reading and critiquing each other’s writing in a workshop setting. 
  4. When you come to see Mystical Abyss, be especially alert to how Sky Woman, Izanami, and Amaterasu each manage to achieve a creative outcome.  What is it that enables each character to overcome her sorrow?  In what ways does Sky Woman’s journey give structure to all of Mystical Abyss?
  5. Revise your own work if you like, making use of any new ideas suggested by the experience of Mystical Abyss.  Maybe complicate your work by adding Amaterasu, Izanami, or Sky Woman as a character.

Feel free to indulge in this game, even if you are not a student participating in the educational outreach program for Mystical Abyss.  Reflect upon your own story or a story that matters to you, and bring those thoughts with you to the show.

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