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Grudges & Enlightenment: Thoughts on Noh Dramas

(Via Goodreads)

Noh Dramas

By Royall Tyler

I read four popular and significant Noh dramas written by Kan’ami and his son, Zeami. Two of the plays, Atsumori and Tanadori, are warriors plays based on Heike Monogatari. Both of these plays were written by Zeami. The other two plays, Kan’ami’s Sotoba Komachi and Zeami’s Aoi no Ue are women plays. All four plays deal with spirits holding onto grudges which prevents them from seeking Enlightenment. 


In this Noh drama, Rensho travels to the shore of Suma where the battle of Ichi-no-tani occurred. He plans to help guide the soul of Atsumori, the Taira warrior he killed when he was a Minamoto warrior, to the afterlife. After Rensho killed Atsumori, he promised to devote his life to becoming a monk and will pray for his spirit. He changed his name from Kumagai no Jiro Naozane to Rensho. 

When Atsumori was killed, Atsumori was retrieving his prized possession, a flute from camp. When he arrived onshore, he saw that all the ships have left and there was no way he can escape the Minamoto warriors. Kumagai beheads Atsumori and notices the flute that Atsumori had held onto. The flute is a symbol of youth and innocence and Kumagai is aware that he killed a young man who has yet to live his life due to war.


Tanadori is another warrior play. Tanadori is a Taira warrior and poet who served under the great Toshinori. When the Minamoto clan attacked, Tanadori was driven out of the capital and was labeled an enemy. As a result, Tanadori was unable to contribute to Toshinori’s Senzaishu, the imperial anthology that he was compiling at the time. However, Toshinori included one of his poems in the anthology but under “Anonymous.”

Tanadori was said to be buried underneath a young cherry tree. A monk travels to the Suma area and uses the tree as shelter. The monk learns about the story of Tanadori and decides to give prayers to him.

Similar to Atsumori, this is a story about Enlightenment; in which a warrior spirit is seeking guidance to the afterlife. However, what makes Tanadori a unique Noh drama is that it focuses on the beauty of poetry by using several literary allusions. The first allusion is the line about tangled sea salt drops, which is a reference to the Kokinshu verse #905 by Ariwara no Yukihira. These drops refer to the salt that workers made from the brine that falls from the seaweed found on the shore. Also, the drops could refer to a poet’s tears. The other allusion made in this play is the reference of the cherry tree in The Tale of Genji. The cherry tree in this play is Tanadori’s gravemarker. It also references the poem that was on Tanadori’s quiver at the time of his death; the poem talked about the darkness and the cherry blossoms. The darkness is said to represent death and the cherry blossoms are said to represent the grave that Tanadori lays in. Furthermore, cherry blossoms or sakura is a spring word used often in poetry. Cherry blossoms are a symbol of natural beauty and so, we can connect cherry blossoms to represent the beauty of poetry. 

For these warrior plays, I would like to focus on the structure. In the first part of both plays, the monk encounters a local that lives in the region, which eventually is hinted to be the spirit of a warrior. While at the shore, Rensho encounters a young boy playing the flute who is later said to be Atsumori and in the other play, the monk encounters an old man who would always pray for Tanadori’s cherry tree. The next section is when the monk meets a villager that tells them the tale of what happened to these warriors. The last section is when the monk encounters the actual spirits of these warriors. Usually, these spirits hold grudges: Atsumori believed that meeting Rensho again was a fated encounter where he has the chance to kill him and Tanadori holds a regret that he wasn’t able to achieve his dream of getting his name published in a poetry anthology. However, the monks provide prayers to the spirits so that they can let go of their grudges and seek enlightenment.

Aoi no Ue

Aoi no Ue is a play about two female characters in The Tale of Genji. During the Kamo Festival, Aoi’s coach was blocked by Lady Rokujo’s. Aoi’s and Lady Rokujo’s servants get into a fight, but eventually, Aoi was able to get rid of Lady Rokujo’s carriage. Lady Rokujo ends up having a grudge against Aoi, causing her to get sick. This was discovered by a miko who tracked down the spirit that possesses Aoi.

Aoi ends up being spiritually bewitched by Lady Rokujo’s spirit who is jealous that Aoi is the wife of Genji. In fact, Lady Rokujo is jealous of every woman that Genji slept with. Her jealousy is so bad that her spirit constantly leaves her body and causes havoc on the women that Genji cares about. Before this incident, she killed Lady Yugao. Lady Rokujo’s spirit transforms into a “demon” (as indicated in the switching of masks) and so, a monk has to cite prayers to release Lady Rokujo’s grasp on Aoi.

Sotoba Komachi

Sotoba Komachi is written by Zeami’s father, Kan’ami. Komachi is a famous classical poet who is known for her beauty and multiple lovers. However, Komachi never reciprocated her suitors’ feelings. One of the most famous suitors that Komachi had was Shii no Shosho. To prove his love, Komachi ordered him to visit her home for one hundred nights consecutively. He does so every night except for the last night which is the night he died. 

Now, Komachi ends up as an ugly beggar because she treated her suitors cruelly. One could argue that this is her karma. While resting, Komachi encounters two priests who tell her to not sit on the tree stump because they said it is the incantation of Buddha. Komachi questions their reasoning since she doesn’t believe that scriptures and praying to physical statues of Buddha and other godly entities will help you get to salvation. Instead, Komachi believes that a good heart is the only thing one needs for salvation. However, the priests question this belief because Komachi lived so long and still has yet to achieve it.

Later on, we learned that Shosho’s spirit is possessing Komachi as punishment for not reciprocating his love. And so, prayers were sought out for both individuals to find peace.

In both of these plays, we see how grudges formulated by romantic ties can lead an individual into being haunted by a spirit. I think the important message that these plays share is that one needs to let go of these grudges to reach Englightenment, which is Buddhist teaching.  No lover should hold you back from your path to enlightenment. In other words, one’s spiritual love for the Divine is greater than the romantic love you receive from a human partner.

So I am not a huge fan of Noh dramas but I do understand its significance and respect its value to classical Japanese literature. I strongly encourage that you read some if you are interested in Japanese literature.


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