Dr. Fidel Fajardo-Acosta's

World Literature Website












Time & Place

14th-15h century. Japan.

Language & Form

Play. Japanese Noh Drama: A highly stylized, abstract, and philosophical type of Japanese play influenced by Zen Buddhism and Shinto religious rituals. The word "Noh" means "talent" or "skill." Noh plays are very austere poetic dramas involving music, song, dance, and wooden masks. The tone of the performances is grave, in keeping with the tragic character of the represented situations. A central principle of the Noh drama is "yügen" ("mystery," "depth," "darkness," "beauty," "elegance"), the intimation of a concealed truth, what Zeami Motokiyo defines as "the art of the flower of mystery." Noh plays often involve ghosts or ghostly characters and emphasize, through symbolism and stylized gestures, the formal, abstract, and spiritual aspects of human action and emotion and their consequences. Noh plays feature a "Shite" (main figure, hero, the "doer"), "Waki" (a secondary protagonist/antagonist), and the "Tsure" (companions of the hero). A pine tree painted on the wall is a feature of all Noh stages. Recommended translation: Arthur Waley


The priest Rensei (formerly the warrior Kumagai of the Genji/Minamoto clan) returns to the site of a battle (Ichi-no-Tani) where he killed Atsumori (a warrior of the Heike/Taira clan). Regretting the killing, Rensei prays for the soul of Atsumori. The ghost of Atsumori appears to Rensei. Though angry at Rensei and about to strike him with a sword, the ghost of Atsumori is appeased by Rensei's prayers and the two are reconciled.


Play based on traditional narratives about the war between the Genji/Minamoto and Heike/Taira clans (1180-1185).

Buddhism, religion based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha), a sage who was active in India sometime between the 6th and the 4th c. BC. Buddhism emphasizes the idea of karma (the consequences of one's actions), the extinguishing of passion/desire, peaceful coexistence with all living things, and enlightenment (nirvana). Zen Buddhism is a Chinese and Japanese version of Buddhism emphasizing meditation and self-contemplation as means of attaining satori (enlightenment).

Shinto: a traditional religion of Japan emphasizing the worship of nature spirits and of the ancestors.

Main Issues

emphasis on pacifist, Buddhist values

drama as religious ritual of atonement, meditation leading to enlightenment

role of the arts in supporting and framing the religious ritual, poetry, flute playing, choral singing

play of human transformations and reconciliations: changes of warrior into priest, enemy into friend

symbolic character of the flute-playing reapers at the opening of the play

theme of the fall of the mighty/proud in the defeat of the Taira at Ichi-noTani

theme of the transience and fleeting quality of earthly power and wealth

Study Questions

What is the significance of the new identity of the warrior Kumagai as the priest Rensei? Why the change? What does this suggest concerning the meaning of the play? What philosophical or religious values are expressed or promoted in the text?

Why is Atsumori initially represented by the figure of a young reaper? Why does the ghost of Atsumori haunt Rensei? What does the ghost represent? What does it want?

What is the attitude of the text toward the Genji vs. Heike conflict? What about human pride and ambition?

What is the significance of images of nature and agriculture in the play? How do those images relate to the issues of war and the lives of powerful people (warriors, rulers, etc)?

What is the significance or role of the arts (song, dance, music, poetry, etc) in the play? What about the flute and flute music? How do such images relate to the problem of war and conflict? Why are Atsumori and his men said to have spent their last night singing and dancing? What is the meaning of such images and situations?

What is the significance of the ending of the play? Why does Atsumori refrain from killing Rensei?


to come

Recommended Reading

to come

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