Events In-Depth

Noh & Kyogen in the Park

Japan Society presents an extremely rare opportunity to experience the tradition of noh and kyogen in the outdoor takigi noh (bonfire noh) style. On balmy summer evenings underneath the stars, three fascinating plays are staged in Dag Hammarskjold Park, across the street from the Society's landmark building.

Scene from Igui
Photo © Shinji Masakawa

The exceptional program includes Hojo, a forgotten play of the taikoh-noh repertoire from the late 16th century that survives only in scripts, presented in a contemporary re-conceptualization staged by leading noh artist Umewaka Rokuro; Igui, an exuberant kyogen piece about a divine hood that renders its wearer invisible, featuring renowned master and film/TV star Nomura Mansai and his seven-year-old son; and Izutsu, a haunting tale of enduring love from the classical noh repertoire performed by members of Tessen-kai, led by Kanze Tetsunojo.

About Hojo (Noh)

Synopsis: One autumn, a monk living in the Kyo Gozan neighborhood (the area where the five most famous Zen temples are located) embarks on a journey to the East. He reaches the region of Odawara at dusk and decides to spend the night in a Buddhist shrine. An old man appears before the monk and asks for Zen teachings. The monk offers the man the teaching of Shingemubeppo: “Everything you see and experience in this world is a reflection of what lies within you.” The monk’s curiosity is roused as he senses a hidden reason in the man’s request for such a teaching. When the monk asks the old man for his name, he claims he is the ghost of Hojo Ujimasa and disappears. The monk offers prayers to the phantom, then Ujimasa’s ghost appears again—this time, in the form of his younger self. He begins to tell the tale of his final days on earth leading up to his death: Ujimasa, who had ruled the territories of Odawara in the East, had once decided to embark on a trip to the West in order to prove his loyalty to Lord Toyotomi Hideyoshi in Osaka. But he later changed his mind and stayed in the East. Angered, Hideyoshi sent Ujimasa a letter announcing his impending attack on Ujimasa and his son. Ujimasa then galvanized forces at Nirayama and Yamanaka castles to create a defensive wall around Ashigara mountain and the Hakone mountain areas (near Mount Fuji), and awaited Hideyoshi’s assaults. Hideyoshi gathered an enormous army and headed East. First, his nephew Toyotomi Hidetsugu, won a victory on the front; then Hideyoshi successfully followed to take over Odawara Castle, the heart of the Hojo family. Ujimasa and his younger brother Ujiteru committed suicide in mortification. Having completed the story, the spirit of Ujimasa expresses joy in receiving the monk’s teachings and is absolved and released from his earthly ties.

This play is thought to have been a truncated, modified version of the original scripted by Omura Yuko in 1594, with music composed by Komparu Yasuteru (1549–1621). This production is the first-ever revival of this version. The Hojo family line was the daimyo (feudal lord) of the Odawara area, about 100 miles east of Tokyo. Ujimasa was the fourth generation head of the Hojo family, who was attacked by Toyotomi Hideyoshi and forced into committing suicide in July of 1590. (The fall of Ujimasa signified Hideyoshi’s successful unification of Japan under his power.) This work falls under the category of the shura noh mono (warrior play) genre, in which the spirit of a warrior defeated in battle and fallen to the Ashura level of hell retells the story of his battle and downfall. During the latter half of the play, the shite actor who plays the spirit of Ujimasa also plays the roles of Ujiteru as well as Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Hidetsugu. It is a common practice in the noh theater for one actor to perform multiple characters in a single production. It is also common for a ghost to appear to a traveling monk in his dreams in the lyrical mugen noh (dream noh). A particular characteristic of this play lies in the rich Zen teachings given by the traveling monk.

About Igui (Kyogen)

Synopsis: A boy named Igui always gets beaten on his head by his benefactor, Nanigashi (or “John Doe”—the actor’s real name is used for this character), when visiting his house. Exasperated by this, Igui goes to Kiyomizu Temple to pray to the Goddess of Mercy (Kanzenon Bosatsu) and receives a hood. Upon Igui’s next visit to Nanigashi, Igui is again about to be beaten, so he puts the hood on his head and narrowly escapes a pounding: the hood is a magical one that renders the wearer invisible! Nanigashi, shocked by Igui’s sudden disappearance, notices a san-oki, or fortune teller, who happens to be passing by. Nanigashi calls upon the fortune teller to locate “a lost item.” The fortune teller first reads Nanigashi’s palm and conjectures correctly that his lost item is a live creature. Then, using divining sticks, the fortune teller again announces that the missing creature is on Nanigashi’s right side—but Igui moves out of the way to escape being caught. Nanigashi becomes agitated and taunts the fortune teller, and mayhem ensues.

It is rare for a kyogen play to have characters with proper names—such as Igui. The word “igui” refers to the wooden pilings that boats rest against when tied up at a dock—a fitting name for a man who is always getting hit on the head. This play is a story of Igui’s humble revenge against his benefactor Nanigashi.

Kiyomizu Temple, where Igui goes to pray, is a famous temple in Kyoto dedicated to Kanzenon Bosatsu. This goddess is believed to be a Buddha who works wonders to provide relief in this world. Because of the fairytale-like plot of this play—the protagonist receives a magical hood from Bosatsu that makes him invisible—the role of Igui is often performed by a young boy. For this performance, he is played by Nomura Yuki, who is seven years old. Each character has a unique presence: Nanigashi has deep affection for Igui, and the fortune teller acts more dim-witted than he actually is.

In kyogen, the actor’s real name is sometimes used for the character (for example the character of Nanigashi). In this play, the actual date and time of the performance and Nanigashi’s age are incorporated into the lines, bringing the reality of contemporary times into the world of kyogen. It is not clear when Igui was created. However, because it appears in the oldest collection of kyogen scripts (Tensho Kyogen-bon, published in 1578), it is assumed that is has been performed regularly since that time.


There is a record that three of the most powerful clans, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Tokugawa Ieyasu and Maeda Toshiie, performed together in a kyogen work titled Mimi-hiki (Ear-Pulling). Currently, such a title is not found in the classic kyogen repertoire and Igui is said to be what was Mimi-hiki.

About Izutsu (Noh)

Synopsis: A monk traveling to Nara visits the ruins of Ariwara Temple. He offers up prayers to Ariwara-no-Narihira and the daughter of Ki-no-Aritsune, a married couple who used to live there. Suddenly a village woman appears to place an offering of water and flowers at the ruins, arousing the monk’s curiosity. She tells the monk the story of how Narihira had had an on-going love affair with a woman in the distant village of Takayasu. Aristune’s daughter expressed her concern about the safety of his trips there with a poem: When winds blow in the offing, white-capped waves surge high as Mount Tatsuta; Does midnight find my lord traveling alone? This heartfelt poem moved Narihira to cease his visits to the woman in Takayasu. The village woman continues talking about the past, of the couple’s childhood together, measuring and marking their height on the wooden water well; and of the couple’s courtship that was initiated by an exchange of poetry and eventually resulted in marriage. At the end of her tale, the storyteller reveals to the monk that she is Aritsune’s daughter herself, who has come to be known as the Woman of Izutsu, and that she had been married at the age of 19. She then vanishes behind the wooden well.

Izutsu Script Cover
Cover of the script to Hojo.

That night, by the light of the radiant moon, the monk sleeps in Ariwara Temple. The ghost of Aritsune’s daughter appears, wrapped in Narihira’s keepsake cloak. She reads the poem that made her known as “the woman who waits”: They’ve earned a name for fickleness, these cherry blossoms, yet they await a man who hasn’t come in months. She dances the Jyo-no-Mai to the memory of Narihira, and cherishes the shadow of him reflected on the surface of the water in the well. Soon the bell tolls at dawn and the monk awakens. He finds himself alone, save for the sound of the wind rustling through the pines.

The noh play Izutsu is based on The Tales of Ise (Ise Monogatari), a collection of uta-monogatari (narrative stories based on poems) compiled during the mid-Heian period (the end of the 10th–11th centuries). Many of the stories begin with the line “A long time ago, there was a man. . . ,” and since that time, this protagonist was considered to be Ariwara-no- Narihira (825–880). During the Kamakura period (1192–1333), a new interpretation of the play was introduced that stated that the Woman of Izutsu, who appears in section 23 in the tale entitled Tsutsu Izutsu, is the daughter of Ki-no-Aritsune. This noh play follows this interpretation that Aritsune’s daughter is the Woman of Izutsu, the image of “the woman who waits.” In addition, she wears Narihira’s cloak (on stage, the cloak is represented by the noh costume choken) and reminisces about the past as she gazes into the depths of the well. Even while transcending the chronology of time and creating an illusory dreamlike atmosphere, the simple set piece of the wooden well grounds the play with a consistency of place and evokes a forlorn mood of autumn. This work is the masterpiece by Zeami written as a mugen noh (dream noh) play.

These performances were held from July 19–21, 2007.

Play descriptions were written by Hiroko Miura, Lecturer, Musashino University.

Noh & Kyogen in the Park was supported by the Agency for Cultural Affairs, Government of Japan. Additional support provided by The Ford Foundation.

Japan Society was granted permission to use a portion of Dag Hammarskjold Park for this program by the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation.


Topics:  Theater

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