Nine Noh Play Synopses in One English-Language Blog Post

This Lingering Life is not a difficult play to follow on its own terms, but some audience members will be intrigued to know that this modern play, in which restless spirits and human beings occupy the same space, transforms and intertwines stories from nine classic Noh plays.  In some cases, Chiori Miyagawa has extracted only a small story element from a play and elaborated upon it, but you should be able to recognize traces of each of the following plots.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, there are longer or lovelier synopses of several of these plays elsewhere online.  My goal here is to condense, in one location, all nine stories that an audience member might care to read before attending the production. I expect that at least some of this content will be adapted for use in the program notes, where each synopsis will be accompanied by pictures.  In this post, I have omitted images for the convenience of readers who wish to print the synopses while conserving paper and ink.

The title of this post is derived from the subtitle of the play, which at least on my copy of the script reads Nine Noh Plays in One (or Two) American Act(s).

Kamo Shrine           (Category 1: God Play)

A Shinto priest visits Kyoto and there the Kamo shrine, where he notices on the altar an arrow with white feathers.   Two women appear to draw water from the river for use as a ritual offering, and the priest questions them about the arrow on the altar.   They explain that, long ago, a woman named Hada no Ujinyo used to live in the village, where each day she drew water from the Kamo river.   One day, while she was drawing water, an arrow with white feathers drifted on the current into her pail.  She took it home and stuck it into the eaves of her house; soon she became mysteriously pregnant and had a baby boy.   Years later, when curious villagers asked who the little boy’s father was, he turned toward the arrow, which promptly became thunder and was thus revealed as the “Diety of Wakeikazuchi,” protector of the Imperial palace.  The mother and son became deities also.  In fact, one of the two women telling the story admits that she too is a deity, then disappears.  In the second half of the play, the woman, now identifiable as the deity who in life was Hada no Ujinyo, returns as a celestial maiden and dances.  Near the end of the play, the deity of the arrow also reappears, invoking thunder and rain.  (One wonders whether the arrow with white feathers might, in an older myth, have been an allusion to lightning, which can strike a person’s house without her having to carry it home in a pail.)

Atsumori                  (Category 2: Warrior Play)

Near the end of the Genpei Wars in late 12th-century Japan, the great warrior Kumagai no Jirō Naozane of the Genji clan killed the teenage warrior Atsumori of the Heike clan.  In the aftermath of the battle, he became a monk.  Now he returns to the site of the battle, at Ichinotani, to comfort the spirit of the young warrior.  Before long he hears the sound of a flute and is reminded of the flute that he heard those many years ago, that had turned out to be Atsumori’s; today the musician is one of a group of young grass cutters who appear on the scene.  The monk questions the young men, and eventually all but one of them leave.  The remaining one confesses that he is connected with Atsumori and asks the monk to pray for the dead warrior’s soul.  The two men pray together, and after a cryptic remark the young man leaves, returning soon afterward as the ghost of Atsumori himself.   The two men, once enemies, recognize that the older man’s prayers for the younger have made them friends.  They spend the night recounting the story of their fateful clash.  Thanks to the monk’s dedication and the young man’s gratitude, they will be reborn together in paradise.

Hagoromo               (Category 3:  Woman Play)

A fisherman arrives at the pine woods on the coast at Mio and notices that something extraordinary is afoot:  blossoms are drifting from the sky while music and fragrance fill the air.  Soon he sees, hanging on a pine tree, a feather mantle of unparalleled beauty.  He is just about to take it home when a celestial maiden appears, saying it is hers and that he must return it to her; without it, she can never return to her home in the sky.  He is at first reluctant.  If indeed it is a magical, then perhaps it should be kept as a treasure of the realm!  The maiden is more than despondent at the prospect of being unable to return to her home.  She begins to fade visibly, so that even the fisherman recognizes the signs that without her mantle, she will actually die.  He is moved and agrees to return the mantle, if only she will dance for him, which she agrees to do.  This play has a very famous moment in which, at the last minute, the fisherman expresses suspicion, thinking that if he hands over the mantle before the dance, the maiden will not fulfill her part of the bargain, but she assures him that doubt and deceit are concerns particular to human beings.  “There is no deceit in Heaven,” the implication being that he can trust her to keep her word.  He gives her the mantle, and she dances an exquisite dance.

Sumidagawa           (Category 4: Miscellaneous, Madwoman Play)

A ferryman is about to carry a final load of passengers across the Sumida River when a traveler approaches.  He is on his way to meet a friend and asks to board the ferry, whereupon the ferryman asked him about a woman he sees coming up the road, acting strangely.  The woman appears to be mad, but it soon becomes apparent that she has ample cause for grief.  She is a widow from the capital whose twelve-year-old son was kidnapped from their home to be sold into slavery.  She has taken to the roads—a highly unusual move from a woman of her status at that time—determined to find him or word of him.  She asks to be taken aboard the ferry but is told that she must first give a crazy performance; instead, she demonstrates her refinement in conversation and is allowed passage.  On the crossing, the ferryman explains that on the opposite shore, a ceremony is taking place to commemorate the death, exactly one year before, of a child who had been kidnapped and ultimately left to die on the road.  Local people had attempted, to no avail, to save his life.  Of course, he is exactly the child whom the madwoman has been seeking.   She is led to his grave, where at first she is too grief-stricken even to pray, but finally she is convinced that it her prayer that will have most efficacy.  She begins to pray for her son and suddenly hears his small voice from the grave.  Near the end of the play, she is vouchsafed a vision of him so real that she reaches out to touch him, but he disappears, leaving her in tears.

Semimaru                (Category 4: Miscellaneous, Madwoman Play)

Prince Semimaru has been blind from birth, and now his father, the Emperor, has decreed that he should be abandoned on Osaka Mountain.  The imperial messenger Kiyotsura, who has the task of escorting the young prince into exile, is distraught, but Semimaru comforts him with the thought that his blindness must be retribution for sins in a past life, and that his father’s action, cruel as it might seem, will help him toward salvation.  Kiyotsura shaves off Semimaru’s hair, gives him a cloak, a hat, and staff, and leaves him weeping.  Eventually, someone else (who in a different work of classical Japanese literature visited Semimaru for lute instruction) takes pity on Semimaru and builds him a hut for protection against the weather.   In the second half of the play, Semimaru’s sister, Princess Kagami enters.  She claims that she is mad because of infractions in a former life.  Now she wanders, with hair that reaches upward toward the sky and makes children laugh.  As she treads the mountain path, she suddenly hears the sound of a lute coming from a hut.  This coincidence leads to a loving but brief reunion of brother and sister.  Semimaru grieves when the time comes for his sister to depart, but she says she finds solace in wandering.  As she leaves, she looks back repeatedly toward him, and he strains to hear the sound of her voice as she moves farther from him.

Damask Drum        (Category 4: Miscellaneous Play)

At a provincial palace frequented by the Emperor, an elderly gardener caught sight of an Imperial consort and was smitten with love for her.  An official tells the old man that the consort has taken pity on him and had a drum hung in a laurel tree near the pond where he first saw her; if he strikes the drum, she will let him see her again.  The old man admits that he would rather not be afflicted by such a passion, but he cannot help himself.  He beats upon the drum as instructed, but it is stretched with cloth and makes no sound.  In his despair, he flings himself into the pond and drowns.    In the second half of the play, the official reveals to the consort that the old man has died and advises her that “such a being’s clinging passion is very much to be feared.”  He persuades her to go to the pond, where she is aghast to hear a drum sounding.  Just as she fears she has lost her wits, the old gardener emerges from the pond as a demon, confronts her with her cruelty, drags her toward the laurel tree, and challenges her to beat the drum herself.   She wails as he reminds her of her misdeeds and describes in lurid detail the punishments that await her in hell.  Finally, he sinks back into the pond under the weight of his own hatred.

Yoroboshi                (Category 4:  Miscellaneous Play)

A man of means, named Takayusa no Michitoshi, banished his only son Shuntoku-Maru after having heard and believed (unspecified) false accusations against him.  Now Michitoshi regrets his action and is trying to make amends by distributing alms, every day for seven days, at Tennō-ji  temple.  A young, blind beggar appears.  He reflects upon his blindness and the pain of being separated from those he loves, but he assumes that his parents’ anger and the slander that occasioned it are retribution for sins he committed in a past life.  Michitoshi scans the group assembled to receive the alms he is distributing.  He sees the young man and realizes that this must be the stumbling, blind beggar people have mentioned to him.  The young man admits to this identification but, despite his pitiable state, engages in conversation that demonstrates an aesthetic sensibility and joy in his faith.  There ensues a narration during which the young man describes the coming of Buddhism to Japan.  The older man now recognizes the younger as his son, but rather than make this declaration before a crowd, he waits until sunset.  It is the hour for a prayerful sun salutation, which although or perhaps because he cannot actually see the setting sun, evokes in the young man’s mind a vision he had, before he lost his sight, of the moon setting on Naniwa bay.  That and the views in all directions around Naniwa remain clear in his mind, but now he is reduced to bumping into people and walking with a faltering step.  Michitoshi reveals to the young man that he is his father, and at first Shuntoku-Maru is ashamed, but his father reassures him and takes him home.

Funabashi                (Category 4:  Miscellaneous Play)

A mountain priest on a journey to see unfamiliar sites finds himself at Sano.  Very soon, a man and a woman appear, and before long they ask the priest to contribute to their bridge-building fund.  Quoting part of an ancient poem, they hint at a personal connection with the story of two lovers whose parents tried to part them by sabotaging the bridge they used to cross to visit one another.  The priest agrees to contribute to the fund, but then they suggest that as a mountain priest (one with magical powers), he should build the bridge for them!   The priest asks a question, and the man begins to narrate the story of the lovers, how their parents set a trap for them by loosening planks on the bridge.  The next time the young man tried to cross to see his beloved, he fell into the river, drowned, and wracked by anger, became a fiend.  At the end of this narration, the man confesses to being the lover whose story he just told.  He begs the priest to comfort him.  Then he leaves as the sun is setting.  A local man adds to the story, relating how the girl, wondering why her lover hadn’t come, went to the bridge and also drowned.  Soon the lover returns as a demon, wielding a mallet and reliving his torment.  The woman joins the priest in exhorting her lover to free himself by lamenting the past.  Passionately, he retells their story one more time, ending with the declaration “I’ll see my love no more.”  He performs a climactic dance, and the chorus sings:  while clinging made the lovers “lustful demons,” the priest has saved them by building them a bridge to eternity.

Funa Benkei            (Category 4: Miscellaneous /  Category 5: Demon Play)

Minamoto no Yoshitsune was the brother of the first Shogun, Minamoto Yoritomo.  In fact, as a Commander in the Genpei Wars, Yoshitsune was instrumental in helping his brother accede to that exalted spot, but alas Yoritomo has listened to slanderous rumors and no longer trusts Yoshitsune.  In peril for his life, Yoshitsune flees, accompanied by his loyal friend, the warrior monk Benkei.  As Benkei attempts to make arrangements for lodgings and a passage by boat to the Western Provinces, he is forced to confront Yoshitsune about the presence in their party of Shizuka, Yoshitsune’s mistress.  Yoshitsune is quick to agree to Benkei’s suggestion that for Shizuka to accompany Yoshitsune would be unsuitable, but Shizuka herself will not accept the message from Benkei: she must hear it from Yoshitsune’s lips.  Then she acquiesces but not without great sorrow.  Her farewell dance is so fraught with pathos that Yoshitsune weakens and tries to delay the journey, but Benkei prevails.  The men set out in calm seas; however, soon a great gale arises, and before long it becomes apparent that the waves are seething with the angry spirits of defeated Heike warriors, most notably the redoubtable Taira no Tomomori, who emerges fully armed and determined to drown Yoshitsune and his crew in recompense for his defeat of the Heike.  Yoshitsune draws his sword, but Benkei tells him that no sword has power against a spirit.   Rubbing his rosary beads together, he begins to pray feverishly, but Tomomori is only partially subdued and continues to pursue the boat for some time before finally falling back.


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