Heike Monogatari and the Traditional Noh Plays of Japan – Sample 4

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The Noh Play ‘Gio’: Women and Power in the Heike Monogatari

The story so far: After the death of his father Tadamori in 1153, Kiyomori assumed control of the Heike clan. Three years later, in 1156, the death of Emperor Toba triggered a power struggle, and an attempted coup by retired emperor Sutoku was crushed in a single day, thanks in part to the support of Kiyomori. With the help of the grateful emperor Go-Shirakawa, Kiyomori began to climb the ranks of government, attaining in 1167 the exalted rank of Daijō Daijin (Great Minister of State), which the courtiers of the noble families resented severely.

As early as 939 AD, warriors had rebelled, threatening the authority of the central government (Masakado in the east and Sumitomo in the west, two of the names listed in the opening of the HM as men who fell after rejecting the governance of their lords and sovereigns), but it was Kiyomori who, through court maneuvering and strategic marriages, successfully formed the first samurai-dominated government in the history of Japan.

It is easy, even this early in the epic, to become confused. Like many epics, the Heike Monogatari can occasionally become a blur of names. What’s worse, many of the characters have very similar names. It’s easy to confuse Tadamori, Tadanori and Tadayori, not to mention Noriyori, Norimori, Noritsune and Noritsuna. In addition, there are the various emperors who come and go. Tadamori, the primary focus at the beginning of the story, has now passed away. He will be mentioned occasionally in future chapters of the HM, but he is no longer an integral part of the story. Important names at this point include, of course, Tadamori’s son Kiyomori, the political genius and current head of the Heike clan, whose story, we are told in the opening lines of the HM, ‘minds cannot comprehend nor tongues relate.’ Other important characters include Kiyomori’s three sons Shigemori, Munemori and Tomomori and Kiyomori’s grandson, Shigemori‘s son Koremori. All of these characters play important roles in the epic, and are featured in several Noh plays, as is Kenreimon’in. Of Kiyomori’s many daughters, Kenreimon’in, mentioned in DigiLetter 1, is particularly important, as is Retired Emperor Go-Shirakawa.

Next, a tale is told of Kiyomori. He goes on pilgrimage to an important shrine. Though he is not a palace guard, he is allowed to travel with armed guards. A huge sea bass leaps into his boat. Overjoyed by this excellent omen, he ate and shared the fish.

But all is not well. Kiyomori has at his disposal the ‘Rokuhara Boys,’ a sort of gestapo of three hundred young men with short hair dressed in red. They spread throughout the city to guard against slander, seizing and carting off anyone who criticizes Kiyomori’s government. But while he can control what people say, Kiyomori can’t control what they think. He rules with an iron hand, but resentment continues to grow.

With that, we come to the Noh play ‘Gio.’ Of the many plays in the repertoire based on the Heike Monogatari, this is one of only a few that takes the point of view of a woman, in this case a pair of Shirabyoshi performers, Gio and Hotoke.

Once their power is somewhat secure, the Heike are immediately seduced by court life, ignoring problems in the provinces. Kiyomori is smitten by the beautiful Shirabyoshi performer Gio, and she quickly becomes his favorite. He builds a fine house for Gio, her sister and their mother, showering them with gifts and assuring their prosperity. Other performers are jealous, but Gio’s popularity is so great that they begin to adapt the ‘Gi’ from Gio’s name into their own.

Soon, however, Hotoke, a young dancer who performs in a new and unique style, comes to town. She has received no summons from Kiyomori, but takes it upon herself to visit him.

Though there are many variations in the form of a Noh play, several things remain constant. The first person to enter, for example, is never the main character of the play. This first person, the ‘watcher,’ is essentially an excuse for the main person to tell their story. The watcher enters, introduces him or herself, and gives background. The watcher, they say, is an excuse for the main character (the ‘doer’) to tell their story, and that story is an excuse to dance.

In the Noh play ‘Gio,’ a man, dressed in official attire, enters, followed by a servant who carries his sword. He announces himself, telling the audience he is a man employed by Kiyomori. He has been sent to deliver a message. Gio, he says, was Kiyomori’s one and only love, but another dancer, Hotoke, arrived at his door. Angered, he sent her away, but Gio intervened on behalf of the young girl. It has been several days since Gio appeared at court. The man calls out, requesting admittance to Gio’s dwelling.

Gio and Hotoke enter. The man congratulates Hotoke, who has now been summoned to court. Hotoke speaks of her shame, of the colorful sash of her kimono and worldly attachments, and of her home.

Gio and Hotoke withdraw, then reappear in identical dancing attire, richly embroidered. They sing a celebratory song praising Kiyomori and dance. They sing of the moon, of sorrow, of awaking from a dream. Cherry blossoms wilt, none are trustworthy. Kiyomori is the flower of knighthood, but who is there that doesn’t fear his anger? Love’s bond seemed unbreakable. Is inconsistency then the norm?

Kiyomori, now smitten by Hotoke, commands that she alone dance. Gio, humiliated, rises to leave, but is ordered to stay. Hotoke at first refuses to dance without Gio, but Kiyomori demands that she dance alone. Hotoke’s final dance is beautiful but sad. She swings her wide sleeves as the chorus sings of wind-blown blossoms and spring fog, of Gio’s beauty and Buddha’s name, of the fickleness of men and the newly formed bond between the rivals, Gio and Hotoke.

Next: The Noh Play ‘Gio’: A Translation and Analysis

-{Art by Kumiko Lawrence}-