Where’s Atsumori

“It was only last night that we sang and danced to bid farewell to this life.” (From This Lingering Life)

Cover of Tale of the Heike, trans. Royall Tyler

Cover of Tale of the Heike, trans. Royall Tyler

It is common practice for a Noh play to extract one character or focus on one scene from Japanese history or literature, and one of the most common sources, especially for warrior plays, is The Tale of the Heike, an early 14th-century account of events that had occurred during the late 12th century.

Although the origins of The Tale of the Heike cannot be precisely ascertained, the work is widely believed to be an augmented compilation of stories that had been sung for generations by blind musicians, to the accompaniment of a lute-like instrument called a biwa.  The tradition of performing parts of the Heike narrative on biwa has continued to the present day; I include links to some recordings near the end of this post.

Blind Biwa Player

Blind Biwa Player

The Tale of the Heike commemorates the events of the Genpei Wars, in which two rival clans, the Taira (or Heike) and the Minamoto (or Genji) battled for dominance over Japan.  These wars occurred at the end of a mostly peaceful and culturally noteworthy span of centuries known as the Heian Period, which was characterized by a flowering of the arts offering few parallels in the history of civilization.  The Genpei Wars resulted in the accession to power of the first shogun, Minamoto no Yoritomo.

The Story of Atsumori

The importance of the arts and of cultural refinement, even in the warrior class, is relevant to one of the most famous Noh plays, Atsumori, which is also one of the foundation stories in This Lingering Life.  The story of Atsumori, as told in The Tale of the Heike and in the Noh play Atsumori, takes place in the aftermath of the Battle of Ichinotani, in which the Heike were routed by the Genji and forced to flee by ship to Yashima.

Atsumori, from Wikipedia

Atsumori

One young warrior, the teenage lord Atsumori, was left behind in the rush to the ships.  In some versions of the story, he had gone back to the Heike camp to recover his flute, a precious instrument given to his grandfather by an ex-emperor and passed down to him by his father.  Atsumori was wading into the bay on his horse, trying to reach the ships, when a Genji warrior named Kumagai appeared on the shore, beckoned with his battle fan, and challenged Atsumori, on his honor, to turn back and engage in single combat.  Atsumori, on his honor, could not refuse the challenge and turned back.

The younger, less experienced warrior had no chance against the seasoned Kumagai, who quickly unhorsed him and struck him to the ground.  Kumagai could tell, from Atsumori’s armor, that he was a great lord, but not until he removed Atsumori’s helmet did Kumagai realize that he had felled a teenage boy, of the same age as his own son.  In his compassion for the boy, Kumagai was reluctant to take his life, although the valiant Atsumori would not plead for mercy.  In the meantime, more Genji warriors were approaching the pair from behind, and Kumagai decided it would be best for him to behead Atsumori himself, because he, unlike his more boorish companions, would pray for the boy’s soul.

Atsumori with his flute, from Wikipedia

Atsumori with his flute, from Wikipedia

It was not until after he had killed Atsumori and begun to remove his armor that Kumagai found Atsumori’s flute.  Sadly he realized that it must have been this same flute that he had heard from a distance the evening before, and sadly he reflected on how cultivated this young man and the Heike in general were, in contrast with the crudeness of members of his own clan.

In most Noh plays, the person who encounters a spirit has had no prior relationship with him or her, but in Atsumori the waki is Kumagai, and as Atsumori’s unwilling killer, he too is burdened by memory.  Long ago, he relinquished his arms to become the monk Renshō, and it is in this guise that he encounters his former victim.  In the course of the play, they reveal themselves to one another.   At the last, their sympathy is reciprocal and cleansing.  The chorus chants near the end of the play:

Now karma brings us face to face again.
“You are my foe!” Atsumori shouts,
Lifting his sword to strike; but Kumagai
with kindness has repaid old enmity,
calling the Name to give the spirit peace.
They at last shall be reborn together
upon one lotus throne in paradise.
Rensho, you were no enemy of mine.

(From Atsumori, trans. Royall Tyler, in Japanese Nō Dramas)

The Legacy of Atsumori

Sadanobu Ichikawa Ebizo V as Kumagai

Sadanobu Ichikawa Ebizo V as Kumagai

The legacy of Atsumori did not end with the Noh play.  The event was also memorialized a few centuries later in kabuki and bunraku, in the play Chronicles of the Battle of Ichinotani and, most famously, in the classic Kumagai’s Battle Camp.  These works place emphasis on the Genji warrior Kumagai and question whether he really killed Atsumori or, by virtue of an obligation to Atsumori’s mother, substituted his own son.  And they give prominence to multiple female characters, notably Atsumori’s mother, who boldly enters the camp of her enemy and demands Kumagai’s life in recompense for her beloved son’s death.

Not all retellings of the Atsumori story are literary, and here is an opportunity to dazzle your friends, should you happen to accompany them to the Asian Art Museum or some other venue that hosts exhibitions of Japanese art.  Among the most popular subjects for large-scale Japanese paintings, such as hand scrolls and folding screens, has been the pair of battles that took place just a few days apart at Ichitonotani and Yashima.  One screen of a pair usually represents Ichinotani, the other Yashima, and invariably, somewhere in the image, you will find Atsumori on horseback in the water, looking back at Kumagai, who rides toward him across the beach with battle fan outstretched:

Detail of a screen, from the website of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Detail of a screen, from the website of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

I have often wondered whether the children’s book series Where’s Waldo was inspired by the crowdedness of painted depictions of Ichinotani and Yashima.

Screen depicting the battles of Ichinotani and Yashima, from the website of the Asia Society

Screen depicting the battles of Ichinotani and Yashima, from the website of the Asia Society

The pathos of the scene in which Kumagai removes Atsumori’s helmet and is confronted by a visage that reminds him of his own son also resonates in a well-known work of twentieth-century popular culture.  Can you think of a scene in which one saber-wielding character overpowers another and, as his adversary dies, removes his (strikingly Japanese-looking) helmet to reveal a suddenly pitiable, even lovable face?  How about the scene in Star Wars in which Luke Skywalker has just dealt Darth Vader a mortal wound and looks, for the first time, upon his father’s face?

Kabuto (samurai helmet)

Kabuto (samurai helmet)

The Young Warrior in This Lingering Life

Hannah Lennett and Lluis Valls in rehearsal

Hannah Lennett and Lluis Valls in rehearsal

The young warrior Atsumori is a major character in This Lingering Life, but just as the kabuki and bunraku versions of the story vary from their source materials, so Chiori Miyagawa has depicted Atsumori and the characters around him in unique ways.  While in The Tale of the Heike and the Noh play, Atsumori is a delicate, cultivated young man who seems not to belong on the battlefield at all, Miyagawa the playwright and Hannah Lennett, who plays the role of the young warrior, portray him as a hot-headed teenager quick to draw his sword, to the extent that he goes into battle already bearing the stain of matricide.  And unlike the imperious figure of Atsumori’s mother in the kabuki play, the mother in This Lingering Life is a conventional woman who drives her son to murder by complacently suggesting that, given his warrior status, he must be prepared to die in battle.

Lluis Valls and Hannah Lennett as Kumagai and Atsumori

Lluis Valls and Hannah Lennett as Kumagai and Atsumori

The character of Kumagai in This Lingering Life partakes of the brusque nobility evident in most literary and dramatic portrayals of his story.  In This Lingering Life, a given character can continue his spiritual mission from incarnation to incarnation, and so Kumagai—played by Lluis Valls—returns again and again to confront his former adversary, in order finally to assuage the young warrior’s bitterness and give him rest.

For More Information

Readers interested in learning more about Atsumori would do well to consult the following excellent sources:

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