Kiyotsune

I am spending a couple of weeks in my hometown, Brescia, Italy, where I return quite often not only to visit my family and friends, but also to train with Monique Arnaud, the Noh teacher that first introduced me to Noh theatre. Arnaud is a shihan, a Noh instructor licensed by the iemoto of our stylistic school, the Kongō School of Noh. Arnaud, who is originally French, has spent most of her life abroad, first in China, then Japan, then Italy, where she currently resides, working as opera choreographer, and teaching theatre directing at IUAV University of Venice.

These days I am working on the maibayashi from the Noh Kiyotsune (清経). Maibayashi is one of the various canonical ways of performing excerpts of a Noh play, such as shimai (short dance with the accompaniment of a small chorus) or rengin (seated chant of a section of a play). Maibayashi (舞囃子) is a word composed by the characters for ‘dance’ (舞 mai) and ‘Noh instruments’ (囃子 hayashi). Unlike shimai, the maibayashi features the accompaniment of chorus and of the Noh orchestra, and is usually longer than an average shimai, often featuring an instrumental dance between two sections of the play. Kiyotsune is a play from the second category (Warrior plays) and tells the story of Taira no Kiyotsune (平 清経) a general of the Heike clan appearing in the Heike Monogatari epic who drowned himself at Yanagi-ga-ura (present Kitakyūshū) after realising the unavoidable defeat of his army, chased by the Genji clan. Just before committing suicide, Kiyotsune cuts his hair and gives them to his retainer Awazu no Saburo, instructing him to present it to his wife as a keepsake. The Noh opens with Saburo returning to Kyoto, where Kiyotsune’s wife awaits for the return of her husband. Once Saburo tells her about her husband, the wife is shocked and laments how Kiyotsune failed to keep the promise to reunite with her, and refuses the gift. Still in tears, she goes to sleep, where Kiyotsune visits her in dreams. In the second half of the play the ghost of Kiyotsune, in full warrior attire, appears, and discusses with the wife. This is a most interesting section, with Kiyotsune blaming the wife for having refused his gift, while the wife blames him for the selfish act of committing suicide. Blaming each other in what seems like a domestic fight, the couple realises how their condition is similar, both suffering from loss and longing, as this world and the other world are made of the same substance. Kiyotsune then recounts his last days, and, in the final dance, he mimes how he now suffers in hell, where rain is like arrows pouring from the sky, mountains are like iron castles, and enemy warriors advance inesorably like flags of clouds. As it often happens in Noh, it is thanks to the power of the narration of one’s own story (as in a psychoanalysis session) that the characters come to realise the inconsistence of their pain, and manage to get rid of the attachments that prevent them to reach enlightenment. In this case, Kiyotsune reaches enlightenment not only thanks to the nenbutsu prayer he recites before jumping into the water, but also because he comes to terms with his wife. In a way, it is not only the dissatisfaction with his own death, but also the resentment that his wife feels for him that cause his suffering.

Kiyotsune by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi

I have already performed the maibayashi from the Noh Kochō (胡蝶) a couple of years ago, which contains a standard chu-no-mai medium tempo instrumental dance. However, in Kiyotsune there is no dance between the kuse and kiri sections, but a short exchange between husband and wife, before the kiri closing section where Kiyotsune recounts his torments in the hell of the ashura, the defeated warriors who remain attached to this world and cannot reach enlightenment are destined to suffer. This section is characterised by the guntai martial style, in which the kamae basic stance is performed in han-mi style, slightly lateral instead of frontal. This stance is typical of martial arts, and basically aims at avoiding to offer the front of the body to the opponent, while at the same time presenting the arm that would hold a sword or shield. As maibayashi are not in costume, this dance is performed with two fans – one is open and represents the shield, the other the sword. Handling two fans at the same time is not easy, though the greatest difficulty of the martial stile consists in performing jumps and other more acrobatic movements while maintaining the stability and solidity typical of Noh dance. As a ‘caucasian’ I also find that my legs are longer that the average east-asian: in order to take a good posture I have to bend my knees much more than the usual, which in the case of a warrior is already a lot! This puts much stress on knees and thighs, and naturally leads me to reflect on the extent to which Noh is a form of art tailored around a specific body type (male Japanese), and might not immediately fit other bodies. What is the future of the Noh bodies?

7 responses to “Kiyotsune

  1. One of the things I love about studying or following traditional theatre is how it provides the opportunity to learn not just about the theatre form itself, but to learn great stories as well, and history. Through Noh and kabuki, we learn about famous warriors such as Kiyotsune, about the Heike Monogatari and the Genpei Wars, and we get to see how a story or a character evolves and changes as it is adapted through different theatrical forms. Though I am familiar with a number of individuals’ stories from the Heike, such as that of Atsumori & Kumagae, Kiyotsune was not one I was particularly familiar with, so thanks for sharing this.

    Thanks, too, for explaining these different ways of performing short sections. I’d heard the word shimai many times, but was never really clear that it was only one of several types of excerpts that could be performed.

    Good luck with your practice!

    PS These pictures are gorgeous. Well chosen!

    • Thank you Travis! Kiyotsune is a very interesting Noh play. As far as I know, the character of Kiyotsune is not particularly developed in the Heike Monogatari, though I am not sure about the Genpei Seisui-ki. I think Zeami took this as advantage and created his own story of Kiyotsune around the relationship with the wife. An essay on Kiyotsune and his death by Hatae Mika is available online here.

      • Neat. Thanks for the link; I look forward to reading that.

  2. Hi Diego! (and Travis!) It’s been a while, but I just stumbled upon this post. What an insightful read. I’ve been performing the shimai for Yashima myself, unfortunately my last shimai before I leave Tokyo this Sunday. Just wanted to expand about your thought about the aspect of the disciplining of the body in Noh. As you have pointed out it has been mainly designed for the Japanese male, and this point becomes more apparent with the rise of female Noh performers – how does the utai change? what about the relationship between the mask and the gender of the performer (especially in circumstances when the character is male and has no mask)? It also brings to mind other dance forms. I recall that while attending a brief workshop on Thai movement and dance, a lot of the moves were designed to emphasize the torso, with the assumption that Thai men had short legs. It is interesting to consider the implications and influences of greater diversification of body types in these traditional art forms, in which the transmission of embodied knowledge is mediated (mutated?) through these differing bodies. Of course, I am exaggerating the differences at this point, but it is certainly fascinating to think about.

    • Hey Shawn, good to hear from you!

      You hit the spot – here are my thoughts:

      1- I have studied utai with Monique Arnaud for some 2 years before I went to Japan for the first time, and had no problems doing that. It is possible to find a common pitch (maybe shifted by an octave) and sing together. While it is often said that ji-utai should be either male or female, I don’t see an aesthetic impediment to a mixed genre chorus. Unlike operatic chant, Noh actors sing with their own voice, so I think it is coherent to have women singing in their own voice. Lastly, I have heard a number of female Noh actors whose voice is much more powerful, vibrant, clean and effective than many male actors, who sometimes sound like old donkeys.

      2- Role and genre is a problem, but only when it comes to hitamen unmasked roles, and to waki performers (who to my knowledge still are all men). Waki are always male, and evidently so. However, I don’t think that the stage techniques that male actors use in the interpretation of female roles are convincing enough for the audience to be tricked into believing they are in the presence of a woman, without implicitly accepting a convention of having women speaking in manly voices. In other words, Noh is not about photographic realism, but suggestion and allusion. Seeing the bare face of a woman will not prevent me from accepting that she’s actually a man, if her technique is good enough. There is also the possibility of creating new plays with female hitamen roles, which would be pretty awesome. Anyway I think this problem is particularly controversial in Kyogen, where there is no professional female performer because of the naturalistic characterisation of male role-types (there are lots of amateurs, though). There are other technical issues related to the male dominance in Noh, such as body size, head diameter, etc. In the future I hope that female performers will have enough money and power to purchase smaller costumes to fit their sizes. Ogamo Rebecca Teele, Noh performer and skilled mask-maker, and other students of the Udaka Michishige men-no-kai are involved in the creation of slightly smaller masks, that fit the chin line of a woman.

      3- Non-Japanese with longer limbs like myself often need to modify their posture in order to look better. This does not only apply to us, though. Some Japanese male performers are so short (also because of ageing) that are forced almost not to bend their knees – the risk is that of disappearing in the costume! Each body is different: what counts is being able to harmonise it. The real problem is costumes, which can be shortened but not lengthened!

      Much of the aesthetics of Noh have changed, are changing and will change. As long as the tradition makes sense, it will be maintained, otherwise it will die out. The challenge is being quick enough to sense the change and immediately intervene to update tradition, and I think that women will play a major role in this transformation.

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