Four Ways of Looking at an Angel

Stories from Noh in Colloquial English

Pages of Fushikaden, Zeami, from

Pages of Fushikaden, Zeami, from

The language in which classic Noh plays are performed is an archaic form of Japanese.  In addition, the poetry of Noh is paratactical and allusive, and lines are chanted or delivered in stylized speech, so even modern Japanese audience members cannot readily absorb the words as spoken.  Very early in the history of Noh, the great playwright and theoretician Zeami emphasized the importance of ensuring that audience members could understand each word, but that principle is no longer part of the aesthetic of Noh performance.  A great Noh actor is skilled at communicating intense feeling by nonverbal means; still, a performance lasting an hour or more can present a challenge to the novice spectator.

6niXKp7cBThe problem of interpreting the words does not arise at all in This Lingering Life, nor does the production depend on a vocabulary of gesture that makes some newcomers to Noh feel further estranged.   The play and the production take a distinctly Western approach. Characters from Noh plays are modernized and their conflicts, explicitly enacted or described by the actors, are revealed as belonging not to another culture or time, but to common human experience.

Hey, Old Man, I guess you’re smitten with me.  If you bang the drum hanging from the tree by the pond tonight, I’ll come to the window and signal you.

(From This Lingering Life)

Revisionist Tellings of an Ancient Tale

The plot of Hagoromo is reminiscent of swan-maiden folktales and Celtic selkie stories, possibly familiar to many readers from the film The Secret of Roan Inish.  In some versions of the story, in Japan and elsewhere, the man who finds the maiden’s robe demands that she marry him and bear him children.  In the Noh play, the fisherman relinquishes the robe willingly, demanding only that the angel dance for him before she returns to the celestial realm.  I will not retell the story of Hagoromo in detail here but refer you, instead, to the graceful paraphrase by photographer and theater artist David Surtasky on the Theatre Nohgaku blog:

Vintage photograph of the pine tree where the angel hung her cloak

Vintage photograph of the pine tree where the angel hung her cloak

I confess that I was at first confused, even worried, when I learned that material from Hagoromo would be added to a play in which all the other characters grapple with disquieting thoughts.  By contrast with her cohort in This Lingering Life, the angel in Hagoromo is neither pained by her past nor visibly perturbed by the struggles of others.

Cover of Ceres, Celestial Legend

Cover of Ceres, Celestial Legend

Perhaps I would have been more prepared for a revisionist representation had I already known of the Japanese manga series Ceres, Celestial Maiden (Ayashi no Seresu), in which descendants of the celestial maiden seek revenge on males of the fisherman’s family for the theft of her robe.

I was also unaware that in the “Robe of Feathers” appendix of Osamu Tezuka’s Phoenix, v. 8, Civil War, Part Two, the maiden is a time traveler from the distant future.

Cover of Phoenix, Civil War Part Two

Cover of Phoenix, Civil War Part Two

If Ceres, Celestial Maiden spins the tale into an action-adventure series for young women, and Tezuka recasts the maiden as a time traveler, Miyagawa’s take on Hagoromo is distinctly comic:  in This Lingering Life, the angel seems to represent those among us, or within our ken, who lead pleasantly protected lives, who can afford to be careless because others will take care of them, or who blithely admit that they live in lovelier, safer neighborhoods and have fewer cares than the rest of us.

Woman with Tragic Hair:  What’re you doing?

Angel: Hanging up my cloak on this beautiful pine tree.

Woman with Tragic Hair: …Um.  Why?

Angel: I dunno.  Because there is tintinnabulation in the sky and the fragrance of waffles.

(from This Lingering Life)

Such a novel portrayal challenges an admirer of the original play not to take his or her reaction to its beauties for granted, and in that spirit, I offer you four additional ways of looking at Hagoromo—all consistent, I hope, with the aesthetic principle for which Theatre of Yugen is named.

Yugen (That Word Again)

Yugen is a notoriously difficult term to define but means something like “the suggestion of an unearthly dimension, eliciting a response too deep for words.”  The quality of yugen can be attributed to a natural phenomenon, an art object, or a performance.  It is no wonder that Noh, which so often invites us to receive a visitor from another dimension, is the art form most closely associated with yugen.

Tsurui-mura, Hokkaido, David Lee Photography (used by permission)

Tsurui-mura, Hokkaido, David Lee Photography (used by permission)

Hagoromo and the Experience of Beauty

A common fisherman needs no tutelage to respond to beauty:

Above endless leagues of lovely hills,
suddenly clouds rise.
A bright moon over the pavilion
claims the clearing of the rain.
Yes, this is a time of peace and calm.
Spring has touched the pine woods,
wave on wave washes the shore
as mists rise, and the moon
loiters in the plains of heaven:
even for such as we,
Beauty to transport the heart with keen delight!
Beauty to transport the heart with keen delight!

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

He also recognizes the quality of the feather mantle before he knows its provenance:

…I see an exquisite mantle hanging on this pine.  Yes, indeed it is astonishing in both color and scent.  Surely this is no common mantle.

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

We, too, can respond to the beauty of Noh even if we do not understand the words.  The angel advances on the bridgeway and strikes us with wonder.  We are captivated by the beauty of her kimono and headdress, the elegance of her gait, the gorgeous feathered mantle that she draped nonchalantly over a branch, and the strangeness of the music that accompanies her hieratic dance.  A video snippet can only hint at the power of a live performance:

Hagoromo as a Parable of Nature

The angel in Hagoromo identifies herself as coming from the Palace of the Moon.  She is “A celestial maiden of the moon laurel tree/now divided in two/and present here briefly.” It is “she whose loveliness is the moon’s own.”  At her coming, “Blossoms fall from the sky.”  “Although not Heaven, the earth is lovely too,” she says, and much of her verbiage exalts the beauties of nature.

Hagoromo Falls, Hokkaido, Dean Goss (used by permission)

Hagoromo Falls, Hokkaido, Dean Goss (used by permission)

This tremendous wealth man is sometimes tempted to abuse.  The fisherman in Hagoromo is tempted to take the feather mantle, first as a family heirloom and then, on second thought, to make it a “treasure of the realm.”  What he fails to understand initially but comes to understand through his encounter with the angel is that without her feather mantle, “like a wingless bird,” the angel cannot fly.

I would not want to suggest that the original author of Hagoromo meant it as a parable exhorting an audience of samurai to responsible husbandry of the earth, the dangers of habitat destruction, or other ecological concerns of our time.  Yet, to the extent that our reception of the play occurs in intertextual space, it seems to me that we can bring such a reading to it.

Hagoromo as a Parable of Art

Hagoromo can also easily be read as a parable about art.  The feather mantle is envisioned not as a part of the angel’s body but as a garment made of feathers, a crafted object, and what the fisherman asks and receives in recompense for his compassion is an artistic performance.  The play represents itself as an account of how “the world learned the East Country’s Suruga dance.”

An association between art and divinity is pervasive in world culture, obviously, and occurs elsewhere in Japanese mythology.  As I explained in at least one article supporting Mystical Abyss, it was a sacred dance that lured the goddess Amaterasu out of her cave; that legend is cited as the origin of both Noh theatre and Taiko drumming.  Ezra Pound, who along with a number of other Modernist authors was inspired by Noh, uses the feather mantle in one of his early cantos as a metaphor for his own artistic endowment:

Detail of an image from the Genji Scroll, from Wikipedia

Detail of an image from the Genji Scroll, from Wikipedia

And we will say:  What’s left for me to do?
Whom shall I conjure up; who’s my Sordello,
My pre-Chaucer, pre-Boccaccio,
as you have done pre-Dante?
Whom shall I hang my shimmering garment on;
Who wear my feathery mantle,
Whom set to dazzle the serious future ages?   

Hagoromo and the Path to Salvation  

Why did the angel in Hagoromo descend to earth?  Why does a celestial being take human form?  To teach compassion, but not necessarily by example.

When the angel says to the fisherman, “Suspicion is only for humans./ In heaven, falsehood is quite unknown,” she seems, from a modern perspective, to be smacking him on the wrist, like a wealthy woman shaming a poor shopkeeper with the words, “People of my class do not write bad checks.”   In my view, that moment represents a status transaction but is not at all the crux of the play.  Rather, the tension in Hagoromo arises from the challenge that the Tennin poses to the fisherman—the fact that she urgently needs something that he has the power to deny.

The angel is a vehicle through which the fisherman learns compassion not because she exemplifies it, but because she evokes it:

the dewdrop tears fall;
her jeweled crown, the flowers in her hair,
wilt and droop:
the five signs of an angel’s decline
are plain to see, heartbreaking!

Please, I can easily see how much you are suffering.  I cannot bear it.  I will give you your mantle back.

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

Pieta, Michelangelo

Pieta, Michelangelo

A celestial being takes human form because man is stirred most by human sorrow.

In an earlier post, entitled “From Life to Life,” I mentioned the Buddhist teaching that the Deva world is not, as one might think, the most auspicious into which to be reborn, because it does not offer the opportunity for enlightenment.  The angel in Hagoromo represents a world in which the unpleasantnesses of human life, and hence the range of transformative challenges available to man, do not exist.

Only a human being can transcend the world of illusion.

Give Noh a Chance  

We do hope, it must be admitted, that seeing This Lingering Life will inspire at least some audience members to give traditional Noh a chance.  There is much to be enjoyed even by a person with no knowledge of the Japanese language.  The mystery of an encounter with a spirit might, in fact, be enhanced by the fact that he or she speaks in an incomprehensible tongue!

The Tennin (called an angel in This Lingering Life), from the Sugiura Noh website

The Tennin (called an angel in This Lingering Life), from the Sugiura Noh website

And for those with a literary bent, the book Japanese Nō Dramas, published by Penguin Classics, is an inexpensive edition that includes six of the nine foundation plays for This Lingering Life, in addition to many other plays.   Electronic texts of a few, including Hagoromo, are also available as part of the Japanese Text Initiative of the University of Virginia Library: .

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