In February, Soju Projekt presented at the University of Hawai'i's Orvis Auditorium with two Noh performers, Munenori and Fumiyuki Takeda. It is always heartening to see a sellout crowd for Noh events, good to know that people share our interest in and enthusiasm about traditional Japanese performing arts. It was also good to look into the crowd and see immediately faces of friends I hadn't seen for many years. It was an incredibly warm audience - so much aloha! - and a very attentive and responsive one. People came ready to laugh, and when the subject became serious, they listened with undivided attention.
The focus of the the lecture-performance was the Noh play 'Kiyotsune.' This is one of my favorite plays to discuss because, among other things, though it was written approximately 600 years ago for a very different audience, it is very easy for us to relate to.
‘Kiyotsune’ is unusual in many ways. Many of the Heike Monogatari-based plays, including ‘Yorimasa’ and ‘Sanemori,’ take the form of dream plays or ‘mugen noh,’ but some, including ‘Kiyotsune,’ consist of just one act. It is one of only two shura-noh where the supporting character is not a Buddhist monk. And, unlike most shura noh, the action doesn’t take place on a battlefield but in a place dear to him, his home.
The play also involves a ghost of very different character. In the Heike Monogatari, Kiyotsune, Shigemori’s third son, is a minor character. In him, however, Zeami found a sensitive, refined character, a talented player of the flute.
Most of us have experienced death in some form, the loss of a friend or loved one. If you could have just one more hour with that person, what would you do? What would you say? In the play ‘Kiyotsune,’ the spirit of a samurai warrior, drawn by his widow’s intense suffering, returns to offer her solace. In a shockingly human reaction, given the gift of one final moment together, the spirit and his wife argue.
But their argument is an interesting one. His wife argues that he chose not to return, but he says no, it was not his fate to return. Surrounded by enemy forces, Kiyotsune made offerings and prayers, only to be told by the God of War that his prayers were useless: there was no hope of him surviving the coming battle. Forsaken by fate, by gods and Buddhas alike, Kiyotsune returns to his ship and watches the moon sailing her course west. Then he asks the Hamlet question: Is life worth it? Is it worth it to continue the struggle if you know that in the end you will lose? For Kiyotsune, the answer is no. Drawing his flute from his waistband, he plays clear melodies to the crescent moon and, calling to Buddha, and throws himself into the sea.
The play opens with Awazu no Saburo, retainer to Lord Kiyotsune, stealing back into the capital. It is autumn, mournful and winter-tinged. Rain soaks his traveling robe. In haste he has crossed the surging sea waves, an unexpected return with a tragic message. He stops at his lord’s home and announces his arrival.
Lord Kiyotsune’s wife comes, breathless. She had heard he came through the recent battles unscathed. Has he renounced this world and become a monk?
The retainer attempts to explain. “When Lord Kiyotsune’s retreat to the capital was cut off,” he says, “he refused to fall into the hands of common soldiers. Late one moonlit night, off the coast of Yanagi, he threw himself from his ship into the sea.”
She is stunned. Not taken by illness, not killed in battle, but into the sea? Suicide by samurai warriors was not unheard of, but her lord’s suicide was not an expression of sincerity or saving of face after a defeat. He had simply given up.
The retainer offers a raven lock of her lord’s hair that he had left behind for her as a keepsake. “Pray find solace in it,” he says.
“No,” she says. “No, take it back. Take it to the temple.”
She cries herself to sleep. Her longing for Kiyotsune is so intense that his spirit responds to her summons, appearing by his wife’s pillow. Perhaps it is only a dream, but still she is grateful, grateful but bitter. By killing himself, he has betrayed all his vows to her. She accuses him of giving up hope too easily. In order to aid his wife's understanding of his dilemma, he tells his story.
In most Warrior Noh plays, the spirit of the warrior first appears in disguise – a fisherman or a grasscutter, for example- later revealing their true identity. The ghost of Kiyotsune, however, appears from the first as himself, undisguised. He also unique in that he appears not to a monk to ask for prayers to release him from the torments of warrior hell, but to his wife in order to bring her relief from her suffering.
The spirit of Kiyotsune appears by his wife’s pillow. “Dear one, I have come for you,” he says. Perhaps it is only a dream, but still she is grateful, grateful but bitter. By killing himself, he has betrayed all his vows to her. Kiyotsune, in his turn, chides his wife for rejecting the lock of his hair he left for her. “The memento I left for you,” he asks, “why did you reject it? Did you grow weary of its sight?”
She shakes her head. The memento helped her to remember, she tells him, but it wouldn’t allow her to forget, even for a moment. Her grief was overwhelming. Side by side they lie, close but distant. Tears fall, then rest jewel-like on their arms. She accuses him of giving up hope too easily. In order to aid his wife's understanding of his dilemma, he tells his story, offering her that rare thing, insight into an otherwise inexplicable death.
“Defeated, our clan left Kyoto, then Kyushu, sailing through the night to a place called Yanagi. An imperial visit was announced, a visit to the shrine of Hachiman, God of War. Silver and gold and seven steeds we offered as tribute, keeping vigil before the altar for days on end, uttering in awe strong vows and countless prayers to the oracle. But then a voice came, a voice divine, telling us our prayers were in vain. We again took to our ships, hearts heavy, destination unknown.”
Forsaken by fate, by gods and Buddhas alike, Kiyotsune watches wild geese in the night sky and the moon sailing her course west. Then he asks the Hamlet question: Is life worth it? Is it worth it to continue the struggle? For Kiyotsune, the answer is no. He resolves to follow in the moon's path and sink to the bottom of the sea.
In the final lines of the play it is clear that Kiyotsune, in his final moments, had been saved from the tortures of warrior hell by offering the Ten Prayers and invoking Buddha’s name.
Many noh plays feature the spirits of dead samurai who seek release from earthly attachments. In the play 'Kiyotsune,' the dead samurai's spirit is already at rest and returns to his wife to offer her solace. In their final evening together, however, they argue. Kiyotsune had been told by the War God that there was no hope of him surviving the coming battle. His wife argues that he had a choice, but he says no, it was not his fate to return. It's a beautiful piece about the costs of war that, unfortunately, are still very relevant today, some six hundred years later.