A friend turned my husband and me on to Mishima’s Five Modern Noh Plays; I’ve read a couple of them now. I wasn’t familiar with Noh plays, other than the fact the Kurosawa borrowed some Noh stylings for Throne of Blood (the stylized, dance-like movements, and makeup made to look like Noh masks). Mishima’s adaptations have given me a place to start.
The two plays that I’ve read are both ghost stories (all five plays are supernatural). Sotoba Komachi is a karma fable about a beautiful woman who was cruel to her lover, and is now, as an old and homeless woman, being tormented by his spirit. Mishima’s retelling is fairly faithful to the original: the stupa that the old woman sits on is updated to a park bench; the priests, to a poet.
Sotoba Komachi was pretty good, but I liked the second play that I read even better: The Lady Aoi. The original play, Aoi No Uye, is itself taken from The Tale of Genji. The Lady Aoi of the title is Lord Genji’s wife; though her marriage to Genji hasn’t been all that great, the two have reconciled, and Lady Aoi has only recently won a little roadside battle with one of Genji’s former lovers, an older woman and former Crown Princess named Lady Rokujo (Aoi had Rokujo’s carriage driven off the road when it was in the way of her own carriage). Rokujo’s jealous spirit has already left her body once before, to kill Yugao, the woman who replaced her as Genji’s lover. Now, her spirit is tormenting Aoi.
Neither Aoi or Genji are in the play; it begins in Aoi’s sick room, with a folded red kimono placed onstage to represent Aoi. Aoi’s attendants have called in a witch to summon whatever evil spirit is tormenting Aoi. The witch succeeds in summoning Rokujo’s spirit, which pours out Rokujo’s jealousy and bile. She becomes so angry that she transforms herself into a demon and attacks Aoi.
Aoi’s attendants rush to fetch a priest, who confronts the Rokujo-demon. The priest’s prayers cause Rokujo to repent her ways. Aoi dies anyway.
Here’s a snippet from a traditional Noh performance of Aoi No Uye (the first 1:20 or so of the video). This is the scene where the Lady Rokujo turns into a demon, and then is exorcised by the priest. I think the foot stamp the priest makes at the end of the scene is the traditional signal that the ghost has disappeared.
The comedy play in the second half of the video (about two servants who have been tied up to keep them from drinking all the sake) looks fun, too.
Mishima’s adaptation starts with the original play, and takes it somewhere familiar, and yet so different.
In Mishima’s version, Aoi is sick in the hospital; she is sedated, because every night she writhes and convulses in pain. Her young, handsome husband, Hikaru, who has been away on business, comes to see her (Hikaru means “shining”, and Genji was always called “Shining Genji” — Hikaru Genji –in the novel). The night nurse makes a sideways pass at Hikaru, and explains to him the hospital’s interesting clinical theories.
…the discipline for nurses at this hospital is terribly strict. We’ve all been under psychoanalysis, and our sex complexes have all been cleared up. (She spreads open her arms.) All of them. Things are arranged so we can always satisfy our demands. The director of the hospital and the young doctors are very competent in this respect. Whenever necessary they administer the medicine as prescribed, the medicine known as sex.
Aoi’s problems, according to the nurse, come from sexual complexes, and she implies that Aoi’s “sleep treatment” is the first step of the program. The next step, I’m guessing, would be for all the young doctors to come fill Aoi’s prescription, if you’ll excuse me for putting it that way. The nurse then lets slip that a beautiful middle-aged woman has been visiting Aoi every night.
Sure enough, the phone by Aoi’s bed gives a faint, weak, ring; the nurse spots the mysterious lady’s car coming towards the hospital, and runs away. The lady enters; she is Yasuko Rakujo, Hikaru’s former lover. Mrs. Rakujo’s presence, and her “invisible flowers,” cause the sleeping Aoi distress; Hikaru tells Rakujo to leave. But she doesn’t, of course.
Their conversation reveals their history: a young, impressionable Hikaru seduced by the older, obsessive Rakujo. Hikaru claims he never loved Rakujo, that he loves Aoi; but he’s a weak man. Things don’t go well for Aoi.
It’s the same basic story (Rakujo’s presence is only her living ghost, as in the original), but it’s way more intense. Mrs. Rakujo is a scary lady.
Here’s a seven-minute synopsis of an incredible-looking 2007 performance of The Lady Aoi by The Black Swan Theatre Company. The staging is more erotic than the stage directions in the script would suggest, but I doubt Mishima would have objected.
I’m looking forward to the rest of the plays.