Kenneth E. Lawrence's Articles
The Noh play ‘Adachigahara’ is a masterpiece of the genre. It manages to be simultaneously scary, frightening and haunting. What do I mean by that?
At a first read, ‘Adachigahara’ is merely scary. Three men on a journey find themselves isolated and alone at night in the bleak moors of Adachi. They ask an old woman for lodgings, only to find she is in fact a demon. In the resulting supernatural battle, good triumphs over evil. It is the stuff of any late night horror flick. “Whatever you do, don’t look behind that door!”
But the Noh play ‘Adachigahara’ is more than just scary, it is also frightening. One reason is the nohkan, the flute used in all Noh performances. The nohkan is specially constructed to distort when overblown, giving it an eerie quality unique to Noh. The otherworldly kakegoe, the cries of the drummers, in addition to their important role as markers for the dancers, musicians and chorus members, are an essential part of the Noh esthetic. The masks too, with their bulging eyes and liminal expressions, are truly frightening, emphasized by the strong, sudden cutting movements of the actor.
But what makes ‘Adachigahara’ a masterpiece is that, in addition to being scary, even frightening, it is a tragic, haunting play. Due in large part to the influence of Noh, there are moments of sympathy both for and by the demon, giving the play a pathos that can at times be wrenching.
The play begins, as most Noh plays do, with a journey.
Three men come, a priest, his attendant and their servant. Beneath the sycamores, they don their traveling robes. Their linen stoles brush the undergrowth, their sleeves droop, heavy with dew. Senior priest Yukei is on pilgrimage through the province, part of the ascetic training of the yamabushi, mountain priests.
They leave behind their sacred mountain, setting off over mountains and down the coast. Soaked with salt they weave their way along the shore, a long string of days, reaching at last the bleak moors of Adachi. But it’s grown dark, and there is no hamlet in the area, only the light of a distant fire.
Now we have the setting, essential for any horror story: a bleak, isolated area. There is nobody to run to for help. What’s more, it is night time, giving any malicious creature the advantage of darkness for an attack.
They approach the small hut and ask the old woman there for lodging for the night.
“No,” she says. “Here, across this field so far from any village, the wind blows violently through the pines. The moonlight comes leaking through into my chamber. How can I let you pass the night?”
The priest smiles. “We are travelers accustomed to sleeping with only grass for a pillow,” he says.
The old woman’s heart opens to sympathy. “Yes,” she says. “If that is your wish, please pass the night.”
Here we have the first example of sympathy, this time by the old woman. She is not stalking the travelers, and at first wants only that they keep their distance. Her main concern is keeping her secret safe, her primary motive is one of shame. Finally, however, she is convinced: she feels pity for the travelers and allows them into her dwelling.
But inside the hut they see something unfamiliar. What is it?
“It’s a spinning wheel,” she says. A never-ending, lowly task. Let me spin pure linen thread, turning it round and round. How I long to spin the past into the present!” She twines even at night, a life of such misery.
A second example of sympathy, this time not by the demon but for her. Her life is a lonely one, a life of hard work and drudgery. Though it’s not stated clearly, there is a clear sense of regret. The theme of string and thread hints at an attachment - to this world, to the past – that won’t allow her spirit to rest. The priest senses her pain and offers relief through Buddhist doctrine:
Save yourself; aspire to Buddhahood. We are but earth and water, fire and wind, nothing more. We assemble together very briefly, going ‘round the cycle of Birth and Death, forever revolving through Five Realms/Six Realms of existence, and all this is but the doing of the illusory mind. Our life is a fast-vanishing dream, now here, now gone. Face your old age. Nobody can regain their lost youth.
The old woman, using the symbol of thread and string, hints at a possible reason for her agitated spirit:
The old woman sings and she weaves. She sings of a nobleman, his hat hung with blue and white string, and of festival coaches covered with colored strings. She sings too of the pampas grass of autumn, waving at the moon with tufts as long as thread. Life, too, is long, so cruelly long.
The old woman’s life has been long. Her existence is bleak and tedious, but perhaps things could have been different. She then rises, expressing concern for the comfort and well-being of her guests:
“Tonight is so very cold,” the old woman says. “I will climb the mountain, cut some wood for a fire to warm you.” She hesitates. “While I’m gone,” she says. “Do not look into that chamber.” The priest agrees, giving his word.
For many in the audience, this is a line reminiscent of the Hollywood horror classic “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (“Whatever you do, don’t fall asleep!”). As in horror movies, of course, that advice isn’t followed. In an uncharacteristically funny scene (Noh and its comic counterpart Kyogen alternately share the stage, and the separation is near-complete: Kyogen is rarely serious, and Noh is almost never funny, even for a moment), the servant confesses to having some sort of disorder. Ever since he was a child, he has had an overwhelming urge to do whatever he is instructed not to do.
Once she’s gone, however, the servant makes a confession: ever since he was young, he has had an overwhelming desire to not do whatever he’s told. The priest had given his word, but he, the servant, had not.
Soon the priest and his attendant are asleep, but the servant, restless and curious, sneaks a peak into the chamber, then falls over backward in shocked surprise.
The scene changes immediately from slightly comic to overwhelmingly horrific:
Dead bodies, bones and decaying flesh, piled up to the rafters. A mess of arms and legs, all shining with an unnatural light. Pus and blood flow in streams, bodies bloated with stinking filth, flesh and fat all inflamed and rotting. Human corpses in countless number are piled up as high as the rafters.
There is a poem: In the Black Mound upon Adachi Moor, a demon lives in hiding.
The three men realize their predicament. The poem, they realize, is all too true. They must leave immediately or suffer the same fate. Then they hear a sound:
The sound of approaching footsteps. An iron wand raised high to strike with mighty force. A fierce wind sweeps down the mountain and across the field as thunder and lightning fill heaven and earth. Priest and attendant chant mystic mantric prayers, rasping together their rosaries, invoking the five deities, powerful protectors of Buddhist Law. From east, south, west and north they come, in their center Fudo, their leader, a sword in his right hand, a rope in his left. The fiendish ogress drops her wand. Faltering, eyes dazed, she cowers. Then, her secret hiding place exposed, she staggers out onto Adachi Moor, and her fiendish shouts mingle with the sound of the stormy night as her form fades from sight.
The final battle is a fierce one, fought in the midst of a mighty storm. The demon is powerful, but is defeated by the power of prayer. She is not destroyed, however, but driven away, and while she is a malevolent force and few if any would root for her, she is a character of depth and it is hard not to feel pity for her.
The memory of Yoshiteru Takeda’s performance haunts me still.
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