Nishiogi Noh

Vol. 3, no. 6, June 7, 2010.

Kore wa nani?

What could this be?  The answer is revealed below.  Hint:  Something is being recycled here.

NISHIOGI NOH. On Saturday, May 8, I went to the Igusa Hachiman Shrine to see its annual performance of Nishiogi Takigi Noh or “Noh by Firelight.”  Takigi Noh is performed outdoors at night.  While the covered stage at Igusa Hachiman used conventional theatre lighting, the house, being open to the night air, was in darkness, except for two metal baskets of ignited firewood set in front of either side of the stage.  The seats quickly filled while a cool May wind contributed sound effects and atmospherics by sighing through the tops of the tall trees that surrounded the theatre and blowing up gusts of aromatic spark-filled smoke from the fires.  As if on cue, a large crow flew across the house at 7 o’clock, and then the show began.

This year’s drama was “Lady Aoi,” by Zeami, the great Japanese playwright, who lived in the 13th and 14th centuries.  Aoi is the wife of Prince Genji, a fictional character in an 11th century novel.  She has been possessed by an apparition and become ill.  Her family has called in a medium to try to identify the apparition.  Throughout the play, Lady Aoi appears only in the form of a kimono laid out on the stage floor.

In the opening scenes, the medium enters with the family and seats herself in the far right corner of the stage.  She wears a white robe with wide sleeves, and while she intones the incantation that will help her identify the apparition, the wind plays with her sleeves, making them billow out and swirl in a way probably not called for in the script.

The apparition appears.  It is Genji’s former mistress, Lady Rokujo, or rather not her, but her vengeful spirit, or “double.”  She tells her tale of woe.  She has not been treated with respect, despite her noble status, because the Prince has lost interest in her; and preference has been shown to Lady Aoi, whom Rokujo now hates as a result.

“People envied me for falling in love with radiantly beautiful Genji.  My days were always full of joy and glamourous.  But once his love toward me faded away and I was in the wane, my fragile life became like living in shadow….I come here all the way to avenge my bitterness….My bitterness will never fade.”*

And she proceeds to beat Lady Aoi.  (This being Noh the beating is expressed by vigorous but stylized movements of the arm up and down in the general direction of the prone kimono.)  As she beats her, the Greek Chorus chants:

“No matter how deep my grudge against you, and no matter how much you scream, you can be with the beautiful Genji or make love with him as long as you live.”*

A priest is sent for to exorcise the apparition from Lady Aoi.  He arrives and starts to pray, shaking his rosary beads violently in the air.  The vengeful spirit reappears, this time in the form of an ogre, wearing a mask with tortured expression and two horns protruding from its forehead.

A battle commences between the praying priest and the attacking ogre.  The ogre menaces and threatens; the priest dodges the blows and keeps up his praying.  Drums beat, flutes shriek.

Greek Chorus:  “One who listens to my preaching will acquire the wisdom of Buddha, and the one who understands my heart will immediately be enlightened and become Buddha.”*

Finally, the priest succeeds in overcoming the vengeful spirit.

Ogre:  “Alas, how horrible the voice of mantra! How horrible! This is it.  I will never come back again.”*

The commotion on stage ends almost as suddenly as it began.  The music and chanting stop, the ogre turns and walks in slow silence down the aisle leading back stage, followed shortly after by the other performers.  One by one the musicians and chorus smooth their garments, pick up their instruments and retire from the stage through a low sliding door at the back.    The play is over.

*translations courtesy of


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