Japan Literature – The Decay Part II

According to BARBLEJEWELRY.COM, the poetry of this era, preserved for us by a series of official anthologies, also reveals a profound decay. Inspiration, feeble, yields to ornament, the genuineness of sentiment to artifice. However, even here, there are some notable and welcome exceptions; especially in private collections, among which the personal one of the bonze Saigyō Hōshi (1118-1190), entitled Yama – ga – sh ū (Collection of poems made in the mountain hut), containing poems of a frank inspiration and full of feeling of nature, and the famous Hyaku collection – nin Isshu(One hundred poems by one hundred poets) by the no less famous poet Fujiwara Teika, even today very well known and widespread, thanks to a game (uta – karuta “poetry cards”), preferred in family recreations.

But the most important product of the epoch of decadence is above all the classical drama or n ō (literally: art).

At the origins of n ō we find the religious element in a pantomime dance (kagura) performed in sacred Shinto festivals (matsuri), and which indigenous mythology links to a dance performed by the goddess Uzume. On the other hand there is also news of other dances, called ta – mai “dances of the rice fields”, performed by the peasants at the time of the harvest to thank the gods of the harvest. IX we find in great favor the dengaku (den, paddy field; gaku, music), derived from the previous ones by adding music, and originally performed in the fields to cheer the work of the peasants, then, in the cities and villages. In the century XIII we see the dengaku performed by professionals, said, to have the head shaved like the bonzes, biwa – h ō shi (bonzes from the biwa, a musical instrument: see below); they apply their art to the representation of historical subjects and perfect it to the point that, towards the century. XIV, there is already talk of a dengaku – no – n ō or dengakuartistic. On the other hand, there is also news of a kind of humorous pantomime, performed, at least from the century. IX, at the end of the matsuri, as a diversion, called sarugaku (corruption of sangaku “disordered music”), which, due to its character, immediately rises in such favor, as to be able to supplant the dengaku. It is from sarugaku that n ō derives, which is reached only when, taking to treat the great mythological and historical subjects and introducing dialogue, to Chinese use, the sarugaku is transformed into a serious representation with the name of sarugaku – no – n oror simply of n ō. This evolution, however, as well as the various moments of development and the reciprocal influences of all these forms of mimic dances, have remained obscure at more than one point. However, it should be noted that the influence of Chinese theater is not extraneous to the definitive structure of the n ō, which had its maximum splendor during the Yüan dynasty (1279-1368), whose technique, together with the texts, were brought to Japan by the bonzes, only interested in culture in this era, in their frequent travels to that empire. The merit of having perfected the n ō, to the point of making it a dramatic genre of great artistic value, it is mainly up to Kwanami Kiyotsugu (1354-1406) and his son Seami Motokiyo (perhaps 1372-1455), who knew how to combine the excellence of an artist, the ability of a poet, of musician, writer and it is due to them if their art attracted the attention of the shōgun and was protected by them to the point of making n ō a state ceremony.

Almost all written following a single scheme, short in extension, simple in action, without contrasts, the n ō cannot be called dramas in our sense, but they possess an indisputable fascination in the beauty of the poem, in the lofty song, in the dignified elegance of mimicry. The topics covered are almost always religious and taken from Buddhist or Shinto legends, but the love for nature, the patriotic sentiment, the ardor of war also enter in no small part. Poetry and prose alternate in the text and not infrequently the prose is in a semi-poetic style, made up of sentences of 5 and 7 syllables, alternating irregularly; characteristic is the abuse of ornaments proper to poetry, especially of the makurakotoba; the language is impure for vocable Chinese. The text is made up of sung parts alternated with dialogues. The former are considered an essential part, the literary element of n ō, whose libretto is therefore also called utai or y ō kyoku (song). Almost all the 264 classical n ō that have survived belong to the 200-year period from the end of the century. XIV to that of the XVI century. Their authors are largely unknown, but their composition is attributed to bonzes, which, moreover, has no value since, as Aston rightly observes, their characteristics are rather those of a school than of individuals.

The representation of a n ō has a short duration: about an hour, and it was customary to stage several of them in the same day. To relieve the spirit from their intolerable monotony, the use of interleaving, between one and the other, soon came an even shorter composition, of a comic character, the ky ō gen (lit.: crazy words) or, as we would say, a farce. The ky ō gen is the most direct and genuine derivative of the sarugaku and differs from the n ōfor the lack of the choir and for the language, which is the spoken dialect of the time, for the study of which they therefore have great value. The arguments are drawn from life and human weaknesses are at the expense of satire, which is often very biting. The action is very simple, the characters detected and exaggerated, at times, to the point of caricature; the actors are few in number (usually two or three) and, unlike those of the n ō, not masked. A famous collection, the Ky ō gen – ki, with its three supplements, has handed down the texts, almost all anonymous, of 200 of these farces, but there are still many other ky ō gen produced by the various schools of artists.

Japan Literature - The Decay 2