A Japanese Performance of Intertextuality: From nô to Kabuki to Film
BONNIE C. WADE
This paper resulted from the request by Professor Margot Fassler that I speak on a topic reflecting my research on the documentation of music history through visual sources. I responded that my research focused on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Mughal miniature paintings (North India) that depict music and dance, but that recently I had returned to a focus on Japan. Would a visually-oriented paper on Japanese music be appropriate? Yes, she replied; the highly ritualized nô drama was of some interest at the Institute but familiar to few. Accordingly, the presentation was introductory and heavily laced with audio and visual material. To publish a cogent version of the text without that material is a challenge. What you read here is my attempt to retain to the extent possible the style and flow of such a scholarly production, as I develop the point that, from early instances of recorded poetry to theatrical forms to popular culture of the present day, creative Japanese, including musicians and other performing artists, have pursued “the intertextual effort” with relish. I take “intertextual effort” to mean “the complex and variegated play of borrowing, citation, implicit or explicit references…and substitutions, which substantiate the relationships between the texts of a given culture (and even between texts of different cultures).”1
The intertextual examples on which I focus are both verbal and musical. They have to do with a story, a play, and three different musical-dramatic enactments of that play that traverse five centuries of Japanese cultural production. I will explore three points about this particular intertextual effort: (1) in terms of mode, it utilizes both citation and reference; (2) in terms of intention, it is both meaningful and functional; and (3) its use had to be balanced with the need for relevance for each contemporary audience.
The story that underlies my illustrative example of the intertextual effort is a very old one with a basis in factual Japanese history, at least in terms of the main characters and the relationships among them, as well as some of their deeds and the broad outlines of events. The story transports us to medieval Japan of the twelfth century c.e. By that time centuries of a governmental system in which power and authority rested with an imperial establishment were drawing to a close with several decades of epic struggle between two clansthe Heike and the Genjifor controlling power. The Genji clan, and specifically the Minamoto family within that clan, emerged victorious, and a new form of governance was instituted in which power resided with the samurai (warrior) class, while titular authoritysuch as it wasremained with the person of the Emperor. That system, initiated officially as the Kamakura Shogunate (1185-1333) by Yoritomo Minamoto, remained in place until the mid-nineteenth century, though the samurai clan in control changed several times. Stories of the twelfth-century struggle abounded and have survived, indeed flourished, in forms oral and literary; needless to say, they constitute much material from which artists have drawn for the practice of intertextualitya deeply enculturated Japanese practice.
“Ataka” in the Nô Style
I will demonstrate this through a play that is based more or less on an episode in the epic Tale of the Heike. The play, “Ataka,” was fashioned for enactment in the style of the nô theater by the playwright Nobumitsu Kojiro (1435-1516), a playwright member of the Kanze lineage of hereditary actors.2 By his time the story was already an old one, told in various forms,3 but the nô drama style was still relatively recent; it was developed by the actor-theorist Motokiyo Zeami (1363?–1443?), whose lifetime probably overlapped with Kojiro’s.
The aesthetics of the nô style lie primarily in Zen Buddhism owing to the patronage of Zeami by the third head of the Ashikaga clan of samurai which was then in control of the country (1336-1573). (Of the numerous sects of Buddhism in Japan, the sect of the highest-ranking samurai was Zen.) The Zen aesthetic expresses at once elegance and a striving for simplicity. Drawing on existing dance, music, and theatrical forms in good intertextual manner, Zeami created an intricate fusion of music, dance, mask, costume, and language.4 His nô performing style was specifically associated with the elite level of samurai society. Because nô has been transmitted very carefully from the medieval period, one can assume when watching a live or filmed contemporary performance that one is witnessing a very old form of dramatic production. Nô retains its elite cultural status to the present time.
In the nô performing style the aesthetic principle of “maximum effect from a minimum of means” is manifested in many ways. Originally (and occasionally still) presented in a small wooden pavilion on temple grounds, nô is now most often presented in such a pavilion that has been constructed inside a theater. Open on two sides to the audience, the relatively small, highly polished wooden stage is connected to the green room by a walkway that is utilized dramatically; the pavilion’s tiled roof covers them both. The stage backdrop is always a single pine tree painted on the rear wall. Theatrical props are kept to a minimum; lighting remains consistent. The acting is suggestive rather than realistic, each motion so stylized, so slow, and pared to such a minimum that it creates a tremendous effect. Sliding their feet, with their bodies held in a certain stance, actors glide for the most part rather than walk or run. Dance segments of the plays seem hardly that. Actors (only male) sing as well as speak and dance; they are few in number, categorized as role types. A male chorus sits to stage right; two (or three) drummers and a flutist line up across the stage at the rear. Only the brocaded silk costumes are rich and elaborate, reminders of the wealth of nô’s medieval patrons.
The plays, too, are relatively simple. In essence, “Ataka” is about the samurai code of loyalty to one’s superior even in the most difficult of circumstances.5 Yoritomo Minamoto has emerged from the Genji-Heike struggles as the most powerful individual in Japan. Unfortunately, in 1187 a desperate internecine struggle ensues between him and his younger brother Yoshitsune, a lieutenant (a hôgan) who had stood with him in many battles. Now Yoritomo has turned against his brother. Sorrowfully, Yoshitsune flees from the capital, forced on the orders of his brother to take a dangerous route over a mountain pass that is guarded by a military barrier.
Yoshitsune is a brave, heroic person of the samurai class; he is also elegant and courtly of manner as a person of his elite status would have been. (Interestingly, in “Ataka” he is usually played by a child actor, suggesting perhaps the powerless circumstances to which he has been reduced.) Fleeing with him is Benkei, his loyal
retainer-warrior, who devises a plan by which they and their small band of men try to get through the barrier. Although they have a porter (a baggage carrier, gôriki) in their band, they disguise Yoshitsune as a lowly porter as well. Benkei and the rest of the samurai don the robes of traveling mountain monks (yamabushi, as they were called, were real characters of considerable interest in the medieval period) who pretend to be collecting funds to rebuild an important Buddhist temple in the capital that has been destroyed in the fighting between the clans. A rumor circulates about this disguise, however, and it has reached the ears of Togashi, the high-ranking officer who, with another group of samurai, is guarding the mountain pass through which Benkei and his men must pass. Togashi has ordered that any yamabushi who come to the barrier be summarily executed. Indeed, some have been already; returning from scouting, the real baggage carrier reports seeing heads on stakes.
Benkei’s encounter with Togashi constitutes the centerpiece of the story. Even though Benkei tries to persuade Togashi that they are real monks on this fundraising project, Togashi tells the group that they must prepare to meet their fate. Observing a ritual within the play, they proceed with “final offices” appropriate to their Buddhist faith. But then Togashi decides to pursue the matter of the fundraising project, and demands that Benkei read his official charge from the subscription document (kanjinchô) that he must be carrying from the temple, and on which he will write the names of donors. Pretending that he really has a kanjinchô, and standing at an angle that prevents Togashi’s seeing it, Benkei “reads” dramatically from an empty scroll. So effective is Benkei that Togashi is letting the men gountil a barrier guard thinks he recognizes Yoshitsune in the disguised porter and they are again stopped.
This is the crucial moment of the story: the only way Benkei can convince Togashi that Yoshitsune is not Yoshitsune is to commit an act unforgivable in the samurai code. Ignoring the order to stop, he “accuses” the porter of not moving quickly enough, and beats his lord and master, shouting “Pass on!” Togashi has become convinced that Yoshitsune is indeed Yoshitsune, but he so admires Benkei for taking the potentially self-destructive risk he has taken to save his master that he decides to let them go. He even pledges a gift for the rebuilding of the Todaiji temple. Thus the band passes through the barrier.
Once they are away, Benkei apologizes, Yoshitsune forgives him, and we think the story is ending. But here comes the offer of a gift of sake wine which Togashi sends to redeem his rudeness to Benkei. A drinking scene ensues, complete with the enjoyment of “spontaneous” dance. Fortunately, inebriation does not result in tragic indiscretion. The play ends with the men feeling that they have “stepped on a tiger’s tail” but escaped.
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