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An Experimental Interpretation of Izutsu

While writing the end of my previous post about Izutsu, I had the thought that part two of Izutsu might be the monk’s dream, and that the monk might even be Narihira himself. In this post, I explore that possibility. I did not sit down and plan this post. Most of what I wrote I figured out as I was writing (the closest to planning I got was that sometimes my thoughts got ahead of my fingers). I am not committed to the final position I ended up in, though I do think it is a more plausible explanation than any other I’ve considered. Whether I am right or not, the experience deepened my appreciation for the unity and beauty of the play’s rich imagery, and solidified it as one of my favorite works of art. I begin the analysis by looking at part two, the impetus for this interpretation. Then I shall examine the ways this interpretation clashes with part one. I end by exploring the possibility of reconciling these clashes.

Part two begins with the following speech by the monk:

The night hour grows late:

about the temple hangs a moon

about the temple hangs a moon

to restore the past: with robe reversed

I prepare to dream, and, briefly pillowed,

lie down upon a bed of moss

lie down upon a bed of moss.

Then we have the final lines spoken in the play (by the Well-Cradle Lady): “the dream has broken into waking / the dream breaks into day.” That these lines bookend the second part seems to suggest that the majority of that section is the monk’s dream. Moreover, I am tempted to think that, if this is the case, then the monk must be Narihira. In his footnote to the monk’s opening speech, Tyler states, “Gazing at the moon brought back memories of the past, and sleeping with one’s robes inside out brought dreams of one’s beloved.” This provides strong temptation to interpret part two of the play as Narihira dreaming of his beloved, the Well-Cradle Lady. Two further considerations augment this line of thought. First, the Well-Cradle Lady spends much of part two reminiscing—her recollections of poems she shared with Narihira are interspersed with her present actions. Thus we have a dream of Narihira’s beloved (because he reversed his robes) with an emphasis on episodes in their shared past (because he was gazing at the moon).

Second, the structure of part two is dramatically different from that of part one. In part one, the monk and the lady interact—after brief soliloquies from both of them, the remainder of the first half consists of them talking to one another. Part two, on the other hand, can be neatly split into two parts. The first is the monk’s opening speech. Immediately after that ends, the Well-Cradle Lady enters. The remainder of the second half consists solely of her talking (and the chorus singing for her). This strongly suggests to me that the action of part two is Narihira dreaming of his beloved. Indeed, after writing out the evidence for this interpretation, I find it hard to see how part two could be interpreted otherwise, at least considered in isolation.

Such an interpretation of course has massive ramifications for understanding the play as a whole. For one, it recasts part two as being primarily about Narihira’s attempt to confront his past, rather than about the Well-Cradle Lady’s attempt to confront hers. (Although, I do not know how the Japanese of the time felt dreams related to reality, so it is possible conceptually that Narihira’s dream is of a real episode. In this case, part two would beautifully explore both of their struggles.) Moreover, in my first post, I remarked that this interpretation would radically recontextualize the ending. I did not really understand the full import of the ending then; nor do I feel like I do now (though I will offer an interpretation later in this post). In order to get clearer about the ending, I will need to examine the relationship between the two parts. This, however, raises some interesting difficulties for my interpretation.

On the surface, the first half of Izutsu seems to flatly contradict my interpretation of part two. It seems impossible that the monk could be Narihira. There are three key reasons for this. First, the monk’s behavior and knowledge is incompatible with him being Narihira. In his speech to open the play, he says, “Someone told me, when I inquired, that this temple is called Ariwara temple.” But Narihira built Ariwara temple at the site of the well, so why would the monk need to inquire about what it is called? Moreover, at the end of this speech, the monk says, “I will comfort those two lovers / I will comfort that fond pair.” Surely this suggests that he is not part of that pair.

Once the lady enters, her discussions with the monk further suggest that he is not Narihira. He continually asks her for information about Narihira, as if he knows their story in its essentials, but not necessarily in detail (and this, too, is suggested by his opening speech). Moreover, if he is Narihira, then it is difficult to understand why both parties fail to recognize one another. Indeed, the monk’s final line in the first half (sung for him by the chorus) is a request for the lady to “Please let me know your name.” If this were the reunion of two lovers, it is implausible to think that neither would recognize the other.

Finally, and most damningly, Narihira is dead. “His grave preserves the past. / The man is gone, yet Narihira’s / trace still lingers, even now / his fame lives on the lips of those / who speak of him” (the lines alternate between the monk and the lady). This seems to be the final nail in the coffin: it is hard to argue that the monk is Narihira when Narihira’s grave is right nearby. Does this then leave me in an intractable position? Am I stuck with an interpretation that fits part two too perfectly to be wrong, but against which part one screams in opposition? It seems so.

However, some features of Izutsu‘s first half suggest the possibility that the two may be reconcilable. In part one, not all is as it immediately seems. At multiple points, it is stressed that the relationship between Narihira and the Well-Cradle Lady took place long ago. “he whose memory still lingers here lived so very long ago.” So long ago, in fact, that the lady says, “No one now could have any tie with him at all.” Dews “moisten the ancient grave.” And yet, while Narihira’s death is a thing of the past, the woman in the first half, who we find out is Narihira’s lover, is—a young woman. How could she be young if she is the lover of someone long dead? The best explanation is that she is some sort of spirit. This fits very well with the end of part one: “into the well-cradle she slips and is gone.” That she disappears into the well-cradle suggests that she is not a corporeal human.

With this now in mind, I think the way toward reconciling the two halves is illuminated. I believe that, if the monk is Narihira reincarnated, then the seeming problems I raised can be comfortably explained. From the outset, though, I have to say that I don’t know much about the role of reincarnation in 15th century Japanese Buddhism, so I could be way off the mark. If, however, this account is compatible with 15th century Japanese Buddhism, then I find it quite compelling. It explains why the monk was drawn to Ariwara temple, and why he was so intrigued by the story of the Well-Cradle Lady. Unbeknownst to him, he was discovering his own past. Moreover, there is no reason to expect the Well-Cradle Lady to recognize him, or for him to recognize her (although this could explain why her spirit appeared to him specifically). Likewise, there is no reason to expect to know the details of his past life, and so his relative ignorance is understandable.

This interpretation also helps clear up the role of awakening in the play. Tyler notes that the movement of the moon in the line, “the moon / at dawn sets in the western hills,” echoes “the journey of the soul towards Amida’s Western Paradise.” This line comes directly after the woman says, “He [Amida] shall illumine, for so He promised.” Awakening, the dawn, and illumination are thus connected to arrival at Amida’s Western Paradise. In this light, Narihira (reincarnated as the monk) must confront his past as part of his spiritual journey. He must learn how his actions impacted, even tormented his former lover, must learn to sympathize with her, before this journey can be completed.

This interpretation, I think, stands or falls based on the extent of the violence it does to 15th century Japanese Buddhism and culture. If that violence is small, then I think it may have unified some seemingly conflicting aspects of the play. Even if the violence is great and the interpretation suspect, engaging in this analysis has only deepened my appreciation for the unparalleled beauty of Izutsu.

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A Naive Perspective on Memory and Recollection in Izutsu

2011/09/02 1 comment

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.

Categories: Drama, Literature, Nō Drama Tags: