A Naive Perspective on Memory and Recollection in Izutsu
I feel compelled to preface this commentary by noting that I have only ever read two Nō dramas, Ama (The Diver) and Izutsu (The Well-Cradle), both translated by Royall Tyler and found in his collection Japanese Nō Dramas (Penguin Classics). I read both in the past four days (Ama once, Izutsu three times). My interest in the form comes from Ayuo’s gorgeous album Izutsu, which adapts the story to a sort of Japanese “folk opera,” and all of my knowledge of Nō drama comes from Tyler’s introductions (to the collection as a whole, and to the specific plays), the two plays I read, and some superficial browsing of Wikipedia. In short, my credentials for talking about these plays are minimal, and I have no idea how applicable what I say will be to Nō drama as a whole.
My goal here is to explore why Izutsu had such a profound impact on me each time I read it. While I enjoyed Ama a great deal, and expect to enjoy it even more when I re-read it, Izutsu captivated me like few works of art have—already I’m tempted to call it the most beautiful work of art I’ve engaged with, and to rank it among my favorite works of art in any medium. I think the key reason for this has to do with the connection of the form of the drama to the story. In both Ama and Izutsu, the action is set well after the central story, and we learn about the story through recollection. My understanding is that this is fairly standard in Nō drama. What is so compelling about Izutsu is the way that this convention is threaded throughout the play, pervading the imagery and mood at every point. That the story is recollected is not a mere genre standard, used because that’s just how Nō is written; it is essential to the emotional import of the play. This is true of Ama to, to be sure, but (at least in my limited experience with it) in a much less pervasive way.
The basic plot of Izutsu is a simple love story. A girl and boy live next door to each other, and they play together around a well near their houses. They mark their heights against the protective railing around the well (the well-cradle, which “told / who was the taller”). As they grow older, they come to know “modesty / one toward the other.” The two marry, but their marriage is rocky. The man has to be gone for long stretches at a time, and has an affair with an empress. The woman likely also has “stumbled,” to use Tyler’s word. The action of the play is set around the well, where now stands the Ariwara temple, named after Ariwara no Narihira, the male lover. A woman, who we later found out is the “Well-Cradle Lady,” is visiting Narihira’s grave, where she meets and talks with a monk. It is through their interactions that we learn her story. Much of this is difficult to pull out of the play itself; in this regard Tyler’s introduction is extremely helpful. The play moves quickly, and presupposes prior knowledge of the stories upon which it builds.
The dominant image woven throughout Izutsu is that of the moon—most of the other images in the play are seen through the lens of the moon, and serve to augment this central image. According to one of Tyler’s footnotes, “Gazing at the moon brought back memories of the past.” The line that occasioned the footnote, “above the temple hangs a moon / to restore the past,” is part of the monk’s speech that opens the second half of the play, and immediately emphasizes the centrality of memory. The play is very much about the Well-Cradle Lady’s attempt to confront her past, and about the sort of person she has become as a result. Later, in part two, “a radiant moon shines” in the well, reflected in the water. Her past comes through clearly (is illuminated by the moon’s radiance), and she recalls a poem written by Narihira, which begins, “Is this not the moon / this spring / not the spring of old…?”
The recollection of this particular poem illustrates just how beautifully all of the play’s imagery interconnects. We learn in the first half that the play is set in autumn. According to Tyler, “[spring] blossoms and [autumn] moon sum up the delights of all the seasons.” The spring is a time of action, of blossoms; autumn is a time of remembrance and recollection. Moreover, these are put on an equal plane; only together do they “sum up the delights of all the seasons.” Remembrance of the events in one’s life is portrayed as of equal importance as the events themselves. The image of cherry blossoms recurs in part two, where the imagery is used to illustrate the Well-Cradle Lady’s willingness to wait for an absent husband to return, “pining / for one rare all year round.”
The well itself, which is of course also central to the play (quite literally, as all the action centers itself around the well on stage), is intimately tied together with the moon. Most obviously, it is a symbol from the Well-Cradle Lady’s childhood; it marks the beginning of the romance that defines her (in the context of this play). Growing up, the two children saw their reflections in the well; now, the well reflects only the moon and, in one of the play’s most poignant lines, the Well-Cradle Lady alone. “I see myself, yet still I love him!” The well also is used to characterize their relationship, which is “far from shallow,” and in their childhood, “their hearts’ waters knew no soundings.”
Finally, the moon establishes a night setting, and key to the play is this setting, and in particular the transition from night to dawn. The Well-Cradle Lady’s loneliness is artfully shown in the line, “Love, will you by night / cross these hills alone?” Regarding the transition from night to dawn, the first two glimpses of the moon we get are of the “sinking moon,” and of how “the moon at dawn sets.” The latter leads shortly to the line, repeated twice, “what sound will bring on awakening?” This line anchors the entire play, and only in the end do we see the answer. The end is worth quoting in full:
I see myself, yet still I love him!
Departed lover in phantom form,
a flower withered, all colour gone
but fragrant yet, Ariwara
Temple bell tolls in the dawn:
an ancient temple, loud with pines
where the wind sighs. Plantain-leaf frail,
the dream has broken into waking,
the dream breaks into day.
This is a staggering ending, and I have hardly come close to exhausting its significance or power. I truly don’t know for sure the importance of the tolling bell. Does it signify simply moving on? The Well-Cradle Lady’s understanding of the importance of recollection to her life? A sort of spiritual awakening? Probably it is some combination of these, and more that I have not thought of. I haven’t here delved into the role of dreams in the play, in part because that, too, is something I don’t fully understand yet. There is some suggestion in the play that the second half is the monk’s dream, which would radically recontextualize the ending. On such an interepretation, I am even tempted to think that the monk is Narihira—but exploring this possibility in depth is the subject of another post (one I hope to write soon).
I hope I have conveyed some sense of the masterful use of imagery in its connection with memory and recollection. Certainly I have not exhausted it. To give just one example of many, I did not discuss the imagery of pines in the play. Both the tree and the idea of pining (i.e. for a lost love) play key roles (I don’t know whether the wordplay exists also in the Japanese—in the English it is quite powerful). Despite being extraordinarily short, Izutsu is a wealth of riches.