Five Modern Nō Plays – Yukio Mishima

Five Modern Nō Plays

Hanako : I wait.
Jitsuko : I wait for nothing.

Songs of a lonely heart flying from the gentle folds of the fan signalling the melancholic air to chant sermons of an unrequited love ; the capricious love muffling the voices of a damask drum ; the viciousness of love nurtured by the obstinacy of the heart spilling its vengeance in a haunted soul ; the arrogance of beauty nestled in narcissistic love humbled by the aloofness of a gravestone and the nothingness of love dissolving into a philosophical profundity dreaming the richness of love on a mystifying Kantan pillow. The shadows of human emotions expressed by the beauty of Noh travelled through the dainty pages in my hand nailing rock solid boundaries within my sanity. The spirituality of Japan’s oldest theatrical art echoed from contemporary adaptations mirroring and validating Mishima’s elegant testaments of Noh.

“But only human beings really change. Even after eighty years a daisy will still be a daisy.”

Time flies, decades overturn, centuries churn history, and humans evolve, yet, the deep-ingrained emotions unaltered dwell in their primitivism. Love births varied sentiments flooding the human diasporas with colours of jealousy, poignancy, rage, solitude, ecstasy and the vastness of fickle nature. Industriously, Yukio Mishima sieves the 14th century theatrical art through decades of modernity, diminishing the elitist barricades bringing Zeami Motokiyo’s art of limitless world bringing the artistic finery to the classes and masses. The prologue states an intriguing anecdote of Ulysses Grant pondering on the fate of the Noh art. Noh, the oldest Japanese theatrical art form conceived by Kan’ami Kiyotsugu and Zeami Motokiyo, the father-son duo was strictly dramatised for the elite Shogun during 14th century supremacy. Mishima meticulously amends the literary imperatives keeping the supernatural elements integrating Western modernism and cultural system. The crucial Noh mask no longer physically veils Mishima’s actors transmitting the shadows of the mask onto the chaotic blend of mystical sentiments and commonsensical situations. The stately prince and princesses are replaced by the naked faces of ordinary people, the outwardly paranormal experiences embody internal spiritualities and class segregations juxtapose aging unsightliness. For even after eight years as the daisy remains a daisy, the tears of agony flow with every heart break, vengeance pursues jealously and even when hindered by incessant blankness, the heart does not stop loving. The five masterfully illustrated Noh plays is Mishima’s dexterous assimilation of surrealism of the ancient art with the incisive technicalities of modernity, comprehending indigenous vague sensibilities through a metaphoric democratic lens of naturalism.

“A man who’s once gone to war reminisces about the war all the rest of his life.”

Sotoba Komachi

Legend has it that Ono no Komachi, a renowned Japanese poet of the Heian Period was famed for her exceptional ability as a poetess as well as her astonishing beauty. The arrogance of her youth and beauty steadily vanishes with the ugliness of old –age leaving 99 yrs-old Komachi reminiscing the long lost beauty ironically near a gravestone. Sotoba Komachi translating into “Komachi at the Gravestone”, initially scripted as an enlightening dialogue between Komachi and the Buddhist priest. Mishima tweaks the dramatization by interchanging roles, placing the deliverance act in a park filled with young lovers. The Buddhist priests are replaced by a young drunken poet questioning a haggard old-lady (Komachi) as she collects cigarette butts off the ground. The heartless Komachi who once neglected her devoted suitors priding in her tantalizing beauty mitigates the harsh effects of aging justifying the inbred narcissism confessing how a beautiful woman always remains beautiful irrespective to the hideousness of age. Mishima tactfully places the woman on an urban park bench surrounded by young lovers making out, shifting the Noh play away from its fabled ambience and providing a realistic imagery depicting brutality of time and lunacy of self-love. The bench become the critical emblematic gravestone of youth and its arrogant beauty. The memories of a war ceaselessly thrive within a veteran devoid of any path to salvation. Beauty is a war in itself, the aftermath scarring even the most supercilious souls gifting nothing but perplexed loneliness.

“Love’s not that sort of thing. It’s something that shines on the one you love from the mirror of your ugliness.”

The damask drum (Aya no Tsuzumi)

The gardener makes way for a 70yr old janitor- Iwakichi, the princess trade places with an elite client of a chic couturier and the downtown city law office replaces the grandeur of the Asakura Palace. Ninety-nine uniform beats of a drum, the 100th beat resonates the sound of eternal love. “Our loves begins from the tongue” ; Mishima deciphers the convoluted emotion of love acknowledging the humble metaphorical embryonic beginnings. The “tongue”, a benign fleshy bodily apparatus naively harbours an immense affinity to the first likeable flavour. The tongue, like the human heart polarizes the monochromatic tones of love, exhibiting natural modesty to either black or white. Mishima , unambiguously asserts the the fellow-feeling for the greyish tone is purely an admission of the human mind and communal prejudices, whereas the tongue cannot distinguish between “original” and “genuine”, simply falling in love with the commonality of the taste.. The beating of the heart, the cry of an unrequited loved hushed by the fraudulent damask drum, the inability to love vibrating through the silence of the drum. The ceaseless thumping of the damask drum teasing the despair of a love-torn phantom weakens in bitterness of the unreciprocated love letters clinging onto the optimism of a drum sound. Hanako, the “princess of laurel” waiting for the 100th beat.

“There’s no way to make a madman like you understand the futility of human existence.”


‘The Pillow of Kantan’ , the Noh play as it famously documented; dramatize the bizarre chimerical allure of dreams and the consequential reality. A will to live entrenched in the nightmarish pessimism. Dreams on a pillow rendering the entire factual world futile, delineates the kaleidoscopic revelations of Jiro enlightening the importance of living in the moment, the glory of the present is far better than the trickery of an enthralling future. The song sung by the Kantan pillow melodiously counsels its occupant, “The pillow is blameless, and the pillowed head is to blame……….” Life is nothing but a dream, there are some people who live for their dreams and then there are some who live in dreams. The futility of human existence enhanced by the immorality offered through dreams is best left on the pillow for true salvation comes from the mortality of the present, alike to Kiku’s garden that finally blossomed on one fine morning beautifying the heroism of trying to live.

“My flowers are invisible. Flower of pain is what they are.”

The Lady Aoi

Indisputably, one of the most famous Noh, ‘Aoi no Ue’ finds a place in Mishima’s collection. The wrath of a woman’s jealousy; the emotion most feared for its malevolence and its vulnerability rising from the sinister depths of treachery and seclusion. As the celebrated chronicle goes retelling the tale of a malicious spirit of Lady Rokujo tormenting the a pregnant Lady Aoi- the wife of Prince Genji ; the insufferable illness leading to a subsequent exorcism of the troublesome spirit. Mishima transmits the archaic supernatural thriller to a 1950’s metropolitan hospital scenery bringing plethora of contemporary trappings. Unlike, in the classic, the absence of Prince Genji is filled with the presence of a masculine-figure signifying Aoi as a wife of a businessman- Hikaru Wakabayashi. The dramatization prominently taking place in a psychiatric ward veers toward sexual complexes. The “ghost of libido” afflicting Aoi tosses the eerie fascination into intense sexual psychoanalysis stylishly mirroring the root cause of Rokujo Lady’s malice towards Aoi.

Keeping intact the spirituality and the paranormal potency of the original Noh, Mishima floats the crudity of sex being one of the derivates of Rokujo’s suffering. The sinister background of the hospital and the inclusion of a coquettish nurse diagnosing the mental illness demarcate Mishima’s capability to engage the vagueness of exorcism through the precision of medical analysis. Mishima’s unmasked actors deduce the possibility of the supremacy of hate and love, pain and joy equating to the cyclical motions of day and night, the root of it all stemming from Rokujo’s sexual ecstasy with Hikaru.

“Don’t they say that human beings go on living by waiting and making other people wait? If you gave your whole life to waiting, how would it be? Am I unshut window? An unshut door?


In one woman’s eternal wait lies another woman’s eternal destination. The lively Hanjo fans sway through loneliness of a tragic love, beseeching lingering shreds of sanity. *[As the story goes, ‘Hanjo’ was the name of an ancient Chinese Court Lady whose embellished fans were celebrated in inspirational poetry] The universal element of ‘waiting’, consumes the artist and her muse. The women – Jitsuko and Hanako, deserted by love, dreaming to be loved thrive patiently in the horror of unrequited love; time being the cherished decoy for the delusional heart. Mishima, recreates one of the most outstanding love stories and a heart-rending classic in Noh theatre with dominant allusions of the dilettante love harbouring no prejudices, flourishing through lengthened waiting interludes encumbering the aimless trenches of lunacy. The inclusion of a flagrant homosexual approach to the Noh play is Mishima’s way of enlightening the impartialness of love disregarded by the prejudicial fundamental of the society. Two women looking into the future of waiting, annulling and acknowledging the presence of love evokes the sensation of human fortitude and stratagem of time capturing the nakedness of a helpless love.

“The essence of yūgen is true beauty and gentleness – Zeami Motokiyo

The Zen term yūgen (幽玄) lays the aesthetical foundation for the art of Noh. Yūgen connotes the idea of a mysterious, sophisticated beauty. The shadows of leaves floating in the tepid waters of a serene lake, the song of a cuckoo filling the morning sky, the beauty when you discover an old childhood souvenir; the profundity originating from the nuances of the bewildering ways life turns out to be. The purpose of Noh is the expression of such unfathomable beauty imperceptible through the naked lens of mankind. The moralistic pillars of the narrative are swayed by the graceful movements of the actors disseminating into theatrical metaphor interpreted by the sentient art and its audience.

The shiny sly needle eagerly searched by a pair of frantic eyes slashing the morbidity of an arid haystack, harnesses the allure of a clandestine beauty among aggravated repulsiveness. Human emotions get ugly, the incidental narcissism veiled behind a placid mask, stories are fashioned, moralities escaped from the tucked seams and yet , when the aloof shadows of a Noh mask drift on the skin of its performing possessor , the magnanimity of its beauty imbibes the magnetism of the steely needle peeking through the myriad straws of hay. The clandestine beauty of human life.



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