Five Modern Noh Plays by Yukio Mishima

Translated by Donald Keene

Review by Terence Jagger

This is a slightly misleading title for a new book, as the “modern” Noh plays were written in the 1950s (and translated in the mid-1960s).  But they are definitely modern in the sense that they were written as Noh plays for performance, in the twentieth century, with some modern sensibilities and modern settings, centuries after the form was perfected and then became, although never neglected, a very niche and almost fossilised performance art. And they are astonishing, very real, very powerful, and unique.

A Noh play is an intimidating thing in the theatre.  It can be very long, and very slow, and is full of signs and symbols, the beat of a drum, the slow twist of a hand – the angle of the body in a pose (the faces are hidden behind masks, and can convey mothing) which most Japanese, let alone most foreigners, have no hope of understanding.  Yet they are beautiful and mesmeric, entrancing and dramatic, and full of suspense and tension.  I had the joy of seeing an open air performance in a temple garden, where you could watch for two minutes or two hours, and wander off through the cherry trees, mind ringing with the images, quite unlike anything you have ever seen in a western theatre – the hand coming back for a drum stroke, taking many moments, then pausing so everyone knows what is coming – but when, why, you cannot tell until the moment of action, expected and still surprising.

And Mishima is a famous, even infamous, writer.  Born in 1925, he was a prolific writer (The Temple of the Golden Pavilion is the only one I have read, moving, disturbing and intense) who was brought up by a hugely over-protective mother, failed his military medical and was deeply stirred by Emperor Hirohito’s surrender broadcast. He came to believe in a backward looking view of Japanese culture, founded a right wing nationalist organisation, the Tatenokai (楯の会, the Shield Society), a private militia composed primarily of right-wing college students who swore to protect the Emperor of Japan; he tried to incite a rebellion of the Japanese defence force, and when this failed, committed ritual suicide.

This should not put you off, but understanding his political follies is part of understanding his desire to reanimate the ancient form.  There are five plays in this book, all short and very readable, Sotaba Komachi, The Damask Drum, Kantan, The Lady Aoi and Hanjo, and all are based on ancient tales (some in detail, some with just a general theme surviving), but brought up to date in a very compelling and convincing way. They are set on a park bench, in a psychiatric hospital, a law office – but the characters are timeless and almost without exception tragic.

For example, the eponymous main character in Sotoba Komachi is a heartless beauty, who refuses to submit to a lover unless he comes to her for a hundred nights. Mishima replaces the priests who rebuke her for sitting on a holy image by a poet who tells her off, now an old hag, for sitting on a park bench when the nearby lovers want to be alone. The poet enacts the role of the lover in spite of his disgust, but neither love nor redemption is possible; he dies, and she is still ugly and alone.

And in The Damask Drum, the janitor in a law office falls passionately in love with a clothes designer in the same street, but she does not read his letters of adoration.  He remains convinced he will win her love if he can beat a drum loudly enough for her to hear it – but, made of damask, it makes no sound in spite of all his efforts.  She urges him to beat it more often, faster, to beat it harder, and he becomes angry that she can not – will not? – hear it. Eventually, after beating it harder and harder to no effect, he commits suicide.  And she says, in the final line of the play, I would have heard if he had only struck it once more.

I really enjoyed reading these; they are powerful, engaging, and much shorter and more accessible than a live performance.  You will, in one sense, not understand a lot of it, but in another, you will be branded with a total emotional identity with the characters.

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Yukio Mishima, Five Modern Noh Plays  (Europa Editions, 2021). 978-1787702929, 196pp., paperback original.

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