Thirty Noh (能) masterpieces from Japanese literature, with Noh play summaries and associated poems. Tokyo: PIE Books, 2010. ISBN 978-4-89444-846-9. Available on Amazon (Japanese cover shown here). + +
Text by Mutsuo Takahashi
Photographs by Toshiro Morita
Design by Kazuya Takaoka
Translations by Emiko Miyashita, David Cobb, and Michael Dylan Welch
“Most Noh plays have a common dramatic structure. Someone who appears to be alive meets an itinerant monk, has a conversation with him in which he or she confesses to being deceased, and then disappears. The same person reappears as a dead person and relates his or her sufferings during their past life on earth, and then tells about the things that are troubling them now they are dead. They beg the monk to pray for their release from suffering and the monk duly releases them with his prayers. After a joyful dance the dead person vanishes.”
From “Throwing light on life by looking at death: thirty Noh masterpieces,” introductory text by Mutsuo Takahashi
The following is my cotranslation with Emiko Miyashita of a selected Noh play summary, “Motomezuka,” and an associated poem, including images of the layout and photos for this play.
A monk (the waki) who has traveled from Kyūshū to the Capital with his fellow monk (the wakitsure) comes upon girls (the tsure) in Ikuta, located in Settsu. The girls are picking young herbs that poke out of the snowy fields. The monk asks them if they know the historic location of the Motomezuka mound. The girls reply that they do not know and then disappear, leaving one girl (the maejite) behind. This girl takes them to the Motomezuka mound and tells a story.
Once upon a time, the girl says, two men, Sasada Otoko and Chin no Masurao, proposed to Unahi Otome. She killed herself by jumping into Ikuta River, where she drowned, so that neither of them would detest the other. The two men stabbed each other to death in front of the mound where she was buried.
When the girl finishes the story, she tells the monks that she is that very maiden, and asks them to chant a Buddhist sutra for her, and then she disappears into the mound. (nakairi, the exit of the maejite)
While the monks chant a sutra, a gaunt and faded Unahi Otome appears and tells about her sufferings in hell. She explains how she is being tortured by the two men and by an eerie bird that had been transformed from a mandarin drake killed by the arrows shot by the men. When her story is over, she disappears.
This play is based on a Buddhist view that not making decisions due to one’s simple-heartedness can also be a seed of bad karma.
How terrifying, yet who are you?
Are you the ghost of Sasada Otoko?
And here, you must be Chin no Masurao.
From each side, seizing my left and right hand,
you beseech me,
“Come with me!” and “Come with me!”
The desire-driven world where I dwell
is like a burning house—
by what power should ever I escape?