Mystical Abyss is richly choreographed, as befits a dance drama, with original music and elaborate animation to heighten the sensory experience, but it is also narrated–mostly in English–and can be enjoyed both for its spectacle and for the story it tells.
Sky Woman’s Journey
The simplest way to conceive of the plot is as a linear trajectory in which Sky Woman:
- Is ejected from heaven,
- Embarks on a “night-sea journey” that encompasses both the watery world and the shadowy land of the dead, and
- Is reborn on earth, amid the flourishing of human culture and art
Mystical Abyss reflects a cosmology in which the Universe is divided into layers, like one mandala registered upon another, or like celestial spheres in Neo-Platonic philosophy. Like the pilgrim of Dante’s Commedia, the Sky Woman of Mystical Abyss traverses successive planes of existence, but whereas Dante’s pilgrim begins on earth, travels through the netherworld, ascends a mountain, and ends his pilgrimage in heaven, Sky Woman begins in heaven, travels through the netherworld, and ends her pilgrimage on earth, among human beings. The netherworld in Mystical Abyss is not underground, as in some mythologies, but occupies a liminal realm between heaven and earth, allowing Sky Woman to pass through it as she falls toward the sea. (In the following diagram by animator Koya Takahashi, the netherworld is labeled by its Japanese name, Yomi-no-kuni.)
Upon closer inspection, the narrative structure of Mystical Abyss consists of several concentric narratives:
- The cosmic turtle, which appears only at the beginning and end of the play, should be understood to be circling throughout the play. Within this implicit circle
- Sky Woman and her Husband dance, and then her Husband falls asleep and dreams. Within his dream
- Sky Woman undertakes her pilgrimage, encountering various helpful spirits and animals. On her journey
- She encounters Izanami and Amaterasu, each of whom also passes, literally and metaphorically, from light to dark and back again.
Thus the frame story of the cosmic turtle encompasses a dream vision, which encompasses a pilgrimage narrative, which encompasses, among other features, a netherworld journey (katabasis).
Notice that the story structure, when considered in this way, challenges the impression one might otherwise receive that women have all the creative power in Mystical Abyss. It is, after all, Sky Woman’s husband who dreams the story and the turtle who bears the universe on his back. And of course, we are indebted to John O’Keefe for his creation, the script.