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The ‘Inexhaustible Words’ of the ‘Pine Needles’:

A Review of the Performance of the Nō Play Takasago at the Konparu Succession Ceremony, Tokyo, 4 May 2018

Andrew Houwen

In a letter written in early 1917, Pound wrote to the editor of Poetry, Harriet Monroe, that the ‘theme’ for The Cantos ‘is roughly the theme of [the nō play] “Takasago,” which story I hope to incorporate more explicitly in a later part of the poem’.[1] Hugh Kenner claimed in The Pound Era that, although the explicit reference to the nō play Takasago appeared in Canto IV, Pound ‘never got round to the Takasago’.[2] Following an anonymous donation to Princeton University Library in 1991 of six previously unpublished drafts of nō synopses and translations by Fenollosa and Pound (AtakaEboshioriHajitomiMorihisaTakasago, and Yuya), it turns out that Pound did get round to translating Takasago.[3] Ira B. Nadel’s 1993 edition of Ezra Pound’s Letters to Alice Corbin Henderson included Pound’s letter to Henderson, Monroe’s assistant editor at Poetry, of 7 July 1915, which included his Takasago translation.[4] My 2014 article on ‘Ezra Pound’s Early Cantos and His Translation of Takasago’ explored the importance of the play as a key structuring device not just for Canto IV but elsewhere in the early cantos, such as Canto XXI, into the 1920s; it also discussed how the foregrounding of imperial rule in Pound’s translation of it anticipates his turn towards totalitarianism, an aspect of the play examined in brilliant detail in Christopher Bush’s 2016 article, ‘“I am all for the triangle”: The Geopolitical Aesthetic of Pound’s Japan’.[5] Pound described Takasago as being ‘at the very core of the “Noh”’ and as possessing a ‘flawless structure’; Kenner’s suggestion that the play’s ‘hymn to vegetal powers became the whole of Rock-Drill’ remains as yet unexamined.[6]

            Takasago is a shūgen (‘congratulatory’) nō composed by Zeami in 1423 that celebrates the prosperity of vegetal, literary, and imperial regeneration. It opens with the waki (secondary actor), a priest named Tomonari, travelling to the capital and stopping at Takasago, where he encounters an old man and woman carrying a rake and a broom to sweep up the pine needles falling from the ‘Takasago pine’ under which they are standing.[7] They explain to the priest that the pines of Takasago and Sumiyoshi are called ‘Ai-oi’: in Pound’s translation, ‘the two places’ of Takasago, in Harima Province, and Sumiyoshi, in Settsu Province, some eighty kilometres apart, ‘are very distant, and the word means “growing together”’.[8] The old couple then introduce the multiple significances of ‘Ai-oi’. First, it is the affection between a married couple: the old woman tells Tomonari, ‘Though the mountain and river lie between us we are near in the ways of love’.[9] The second is the literary past and present: the old man adds that the Takasago pine stands for ‘the old age’ of the eighth-century ‘Manyoshu’ anthology and the ‘Sumiyoshi’ pine ‘our own time of Engi’, that of the tenth-century Kokinshū anthology.[10] The ‘pine-needles’ are thus the ‘inexhaustible words’ of literary tradition.[11] Finally, this prosperity is attributed to benevolent imperial rule: the chorus sing the shikai nami (‘the four seas’ waves’) passage, which opens: ‘The waves of the whole sea are quiet, / The whole country well governed’.[12] In the second half of the play, the priest crosses the sea to Sumiyoshi, where the Sumiyoshi deity performs a celebratory dance of youthful vigour to conclude the play. The close relationship Takasago presents between a fertile literary tradition and the peaceful stability of imperial rule would prove highly influential for Pound.

            When first writing my article on Pound’s translation of Takasago and its importance for his early cantos as a master’s thesis at the University of Oxford in 2011, however, I had only encountered Takasago as a literary text, as Pound had, though Fenollosa had seen a performance of it on 8 June 1901 at the residence of the Kanze school nō actor Umewaka Minoru.[13] I later purchased a DVD of a Takasago performance, but it was not until last March that I was first able to see a live performance of Takasago, at the National Noh Theatre in Tokyo; on 4 May, I was able to see another performance of it at the Hōshō Theatre, Tokyo, as part of a special programme of nō commemorating the succession of Konparu Norikazu as the head of the Konparu school, one of the oldest of the five nō schools. The current head, Konparu Norikazu, is eighty-first in the line of succession. The origin of this line is traditionally ascribed to the legendary sixth-century figure Hata no Kawakatsu, who is supposed to have introduced Shintō kagura (‘god-music’). In the fourteenth century, they appeared as the Emai troupe, one of four attached to the Kasuga Shrine in Yamato Province, the first four of the five present-day nō schools. One member of the Emai troupe, Konparu Ujinobu (1405-71), later known as Zenchiku, was taught by Zeami, who also became his father-in-law, and composed several plays, including Kakitsubata, although Fenollosa, following Ōwada Takeki’s Yōkyoku tsūkai (‘Nō with Commentary’) of 1896, attributes it to Zeami while mistakenly attributing Aoi no ue to ‘Ujinobu’.[14] The current Konparu school is descended from the Emai troupe and Zenchiku.

            Following the patronage of the Ashikaga shōguns in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, nō was adopted with renewed enthusiasm by Toyotomi Hideyoshi and the first shōgun of the Tokugawa shōgunate, Tokugawa Ieyasu. Beginning with the Ashikaga shōguns and continuing throughout the Tokugawa shōgunate, the utaizome (‘First Nō’) was performed each new year in front of the shōgun at his Edo castle. The heads of the Kanze and Konparu schools were the only ones permitted to attend every year. After the head of the Kanze school sang the shikai nami passage from Takasago, three plays, including Takasago, were performed, as Pound explains in ‘Noh’ or Accomplishment.[15] From Hideyoshi’s reign onwards, nō actors were provided with generous subsidies that were fixed throughout the Tokugawa shōgunate; they thus lived in what Furukawa Hisashi describes as ‘extreme luxury’.[16] The Konparu School owned a residence in Nara at that time of a thousand tsubo (around 3300 m²).[17] As the now retired head of the Konparu school, Konparu Yasuaki, told me in an interview at his home, Hideyoshi had granted the Konparu school three villages in the Nara area.[18] With the war between the anti-shōgun armies in the 1860s, however, the Konparu estate chained up its gates and the actors fled to the nearby Nenbutsu Temple with their most treasured possessions. After the fall of the shōgunate, all subsidies to nō actors suddenly stopped. The estate was destroyed, and the materials they had salvaged had to be sold due to the Konparu school’s heavy debts.[19] According to Konparu Yasuaki, the Nara Konparu treasures have not yet been recovered.[20]

            Today, however, the Konparu school, and nō more generally, are prosperous once again, not only due to government funding, but also to its popularity. The March performance of Takasago I watched at the National Noh Theatre, with its digital screens on the backs of the seats giving Japanese and English subtitles as the play progressed, was sold out as usual, as was the Konparu succession performance on 4 May. Watching Takasago performed live offers a multitude of significant details unavailable in the play’s libretto. What most clearly stands out is the contrast in speed and energy between the first and second halves of the play, which accords with the well-known structural principle of jo-ha-kyū (‘introduction, development, conclusion’) to which Zeami refers in his discussion of nō composition.[21] In the introductory part of Takasago, the movement is gentle and refined, in keeping with the age of the old couple and the emphasis on the peaceful stability of imperial rule. Kyū, however, more literally means ‘fast’. Zeami explains that the kyū usually involves the dance of the shite (the main performer).[22] In the first half, the shite is the old man; in the second, it is the Sumiyoshi deity, the spirit of the old man and the Sumiyoshi pine. Whereas the old man’s movements are slow and stately in the first half, the Sumiyoshi deity’s dance and the speed and power of the taiko drum brought out for the second half are highly vigorous and energetic. In this way, the manner of the shite’s performance in the second half embodies the vitality of literal, vegetal and imperial regeneration at the heart of Takasago. The slow calm of the first half emphasises, through contrast, the youthful energy of the second.

            This slow calm is particularly expressed in the shikai nami, in which the chorus sings, ‘The wind does not even rustle through the branches, / It is surely a happy reign’.[23] It is in the movements and positions of the actors on the stage during the chanting of the shikai nami that a further telling detail not observable in the libretto appears. Earlier, in the Konparu performance, it is the old woman who enters the stage first along the hashigakari (‘bridge’), followed by the old man, and it is she who explains the first meaning of aioi as a loving couple being ‘near in the ways of love’, ‘Though the mountain and river lie between us’. In alternating lines, they sing the second meaning of aioi together, that of the fertile literary tradition scattering like the pine-needles down the ages, with the old woman towards the front of the stage and the old man standing behind her to the audience’s right. It is she who explains how ‘the pine-needles’ are ‘inexhaustible words’. As the chorus begins chanting the shikai nami in praise of imperial rule, however, the old woman moves behind the old man and sits in the back corner to the audience’s right, never to speak again on her own in the play, while the old man moves forward to centre stage and dances to the chorus’s chant. After the chant concludes, she stands up and follows the old man along the hashigakari off the stage. This positioning is telling: whereas the play’s first interpretation of aioi suggests an equal and reciprocal love, the final reading of the term indicates the Confucian male-centred hierarchy that underpins the apparent ‘calm’ of imperial rule. 

            Indeed, the power relationship between men and women remains a contentious issue in nō. The first play performed at the Konparu succession performance was Okina (‘The Old Man’), a Shintō ritual play said to be the oldest nō in the canon and is of mysterious origin. Like Takasago, it celebrates the longevity of literary tradition and imperial rule. The ‘old man’ of the play’s title prays for ‘peace and calm for all the land under heaven’, while Chitose (‘Thousand Years’) prays for the emperor and the feather-robe dance of the heavenly maidens – which provides the theme of the nō play Hagoromo and is said to have been taught by the heavenly maidens to the Chinese Emperor Xuanzong – to last for ‘a thousand years’.[24] Not only are women not allowed to perform in Okina; all actors performing in it must avoid contact with women for a fixed period – for the Konparu succession performance, seven days, according to Konparu Yasuaki.[25] When taking public transport, they cannot even receive tickets from female staff, having to get others to buy and keep their tickets for them instead.[26] Nevertheless, women’s participation in nō has been steadily increasing in recent decades.[27] Unlike kabuki, the five nō schools are allowed to admit female members, and many nō programmes, such as the National Noh Theatre’s March performance of Takasago, featured chants, dances, and plays performed by all-women casts alongside men’s performances. As the representation of women changes in nō, aspects of the tradition may change accordingly, as they always have done over the centuries. What is sure to remain and prosper, however, is the tradition of nō itself, the ‘pine-needles’ of its ‘inexhaustible words’ forever scattering down the ages. I therefore offer my warmest congratulations to Konparu Norikazu on becoming the eighty-first head of the Konparu school.


[1] Roxana Preda and Andrew Taylor, ‘Calendar of Composition’, in The Cantos Project (2015), <http://thecantosproject.ed.ac.uk/index.php/overview/calendar-of-composition?showall=1>, accessed 9 February 2019. 

[2] Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1971), p. 283.

[3] None of these is included in Akiko Miyake, Sanehide Kodama and Nicholas Teele (eds), A Guide to Ezra Pound and Ernest Fenollosa’s Classic Noh Theatre of Japan (Orono, MN: The National Poetry Foundation, 1994).

[4] Ira B. Nadel (ed.), Ezra Pound’s Letters to Alice Corbin Henderson (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1993), pp. 109-17.

[5] Andrew Houwen, ‘Ezra Pound’s Early Cantos and His Translation of Takasago’, Review of English Studies, vol. 65, no. 269 (April 2014), pp. 321-41; Christopher Bush, ‘“I am all for the triangle”: The Geopolitical Aesthetic of Pound’s Japan’, in Paul Stasi and Josephine Park (eds), Ezra Pound in the Present: Essays on Pound’s Contemporaneity (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), pp. 75-106.

[6] Kenner, The Pound Era, p. 283.

[7] Nadel (ed.), Ezra Pound’s Letters to Alice Corbin Henderson, p. 112.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., p. 113.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Umewaka Minoru, Nikki (‘Diaries’), ed. Umewaka Rokurō et al., 9 vols, vol. 6 (Tokyo: Yagi shoten, 2003), p. 236.

[14] Umewaka Takeshi and Kanze Kiyokazu (eds), Nō wo yomu (‘Reading Nō’), 4 vols, vol. 3 (Tokyo: Kadokawa, 2013), pp. 73. Zenchiku’s authorship of Kakitsubata is not certain but is currently considered as highly likely. Aoi no ue’s author remains unknown, but its composition dates to before 1413.

[15] Fenollosa and Pound, ‘Noh’ or Accomplishment (London: Macmillan, 1916), pp. 10-11; Ōwada Takeki, Utai to nō (Tokyo: Hakubunkan, 1900), p. 13.

[16] Furukawa Hisashi, Meiji nōgakushi jōsetsu (‘An Introduction to the Meiji History of Nō’) (Tokyo: Wanya shoten, 1969), p. 16.

[17] Ōkura Hanjirō, ‘Konparu ryū no kokiroku’ (‘Ancient Records of the Konparu School’), Nōgaku, vol. 9, no. 12 (December 1911), pp. 46-48, p. 46.

[18] Personal interview with Konparu Yasuaki, 6 December 2018. I am grateful to Tanaka Yōsuke and his wife, Fumiko, as well as Konparu Yasuaki’s daughter, Makiko, for kindly arranging this interview.

[19] Furukawa, Meiji nōgakushi jōsetsu, p. 14; personal interview with Konparu Yasuaki, 6 December 2018.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Zeami, Sandō (‘The Three Ways’), in Omote Akira and Katō Shūichi (eds), Zeami, Zenchiku (Tokyo: Iwanami shoten, 1974), p. 135.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Nadel (ed.), The Letters of Ezra Pound to Alice Corbin Henderson, p. 113. 

[24] Anon., Okina, in Umehara and Kanze (eds), Nō wo yomu, vol. 1, pp. 21-28, pp. 24-25.

[25] Personal interview with Konparu Yasuaki, 6 December 2018.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.