This past weekend I volunteered at the Japan Society, where the Mishima Yukio play, Hanjo, was being performed as part of the Japan Society’s ongoing Noh Now Series. The play was performed by the SITI Company, a group headed by Anne Bogart, who many an actor might know as the founder of the acting techniques known as Viewpoints. This production, however, was directed another titan of the SITI company, Leon Ingulsrud.
Hanjo actually has an extensive life before the 1955 Mishima incarnation, which was done this past weekend at JS. It was first envisioned and performed as a noh play by none other than Zeami Motokiyo, noh’s founding father. The story, adapted from an ancient Chinese tale, tells the story of a courtesan named Hanago, who one evening fall madly in love with a gentleman suitor. The two agree to reunite and exchange two fans as a symbol of their promise of fidelity. But, wouldn’t you know it, the guy takes his sweet time and Hanago goes mad waiting for him, and begins referring to herself as the discarded “Hanjo.” In a plot quite atypical for a noh play, the two lovers are eventually reunited and the ending is a happy one.
In Mishima’s play, on the other hand, Hanago is not so lucky. A modern retelling of the story refocuses the tale by adding a third character to the mix, a wealthy female artist named Jitsuko, who herself has become infatuated with Hanago–mainly the beauty of Hanago’s madness to be exact– and has bought out Hanago’s geisha contract and moved the two of them to a new place. Hanago, ever faithful, goes to the local train station every day in hopes that her lover, Yoshio, will figure out the new location and meet her there. The play begins with Jitsuko fretting over a recent newspaper article, which has highlighted Hanago’s sad plight, in fear that such an article will make its way back to Yoshio who, of course, Jistuko would prefer never shows up. But show up he does, and in spite of Jitsuko’s protestations, the lovers again come face-to-face. However, upon seeing Yoshio, Hanago believes that he is not the man she has been waiting for. In a cruel twist of fate, Hanago’s obsession with waiting has transformed what Yoshio actually is into an imaginary figure who no human could ever hope to be. So a happy ending for Jitsuko, who gets to keep the mad Hanago in her clutches, but an unhappy ending for Yoshio and Hanago (well, maybe not Hanago, depending on whether or not you think she is better off living in her fantasy).
The Mishima play itself is rather short, about 20 minutes in total. However, the SITI company had the three actors take on each role once, making the performance repeat twice. Along with two English speaking men, a Japanese speaking woman performed. In this way, you got to hear the Japanese version as well as English version of all the characters, as well as scenarios where men played the roles of the women.
Admittedly, I didn’t love this performance. I didn’t even like it. I was so overwhelmed by expectation that I, as an audience member, give myself freely over to the aesthetic language of the performance, that I just felt alienated. I wondered why they were doing the play three times in a row if all the actors were just trying to recreate a homogenous product. I wondered why they chose to do the play in both languages. I wondered if the play even mattered if I was supposed to focus on the form.
In retrospect, I believe I have since been afforded some clarity. While all of the issues I raised are valid, wouldn’t I ask the same questions of a noh performance if I were to watch it for the first time? And wouldn’t my answers to these questions provide compelling reasons for how and why I might interact with this type of theater? For example, noh plays are almost always nearly identical (with slight variations depending on the school/family) in their performance, so it is understood that we must focus on the delicate details of seasoned masters to truly experience the play. While noh is performed in “Japanese” it is classical Japanese and often hard for even a native speaker to understand all of it, so the disconnect from language is part of the experience. And finally, often a noh audience knows all the plays, so it makes sense that their attention would be on the form, because they wanted the form to illuminate the story they love in a unique way.
In other words, what I think the SITI Company was doing in presenting the same play three times, was asking us to create in our minds a temporally abridged version of what noh has had 600 years to do. As the play continued, the performance asked us to appreciate, but allow the narrative to fall to the wayside. It asked us to appreciate, but allow repeated choreography fall by the wayside. It asked us to appreciate, but allow the repeated musical patterns to fall by the wayside. And after all is left behind, let an interesting thing happen– let all the little details that are hidden under the surface of the things we recognize come into focus, and use these unique details to allow ourselves to experience a story we may love so dearly (or may merely know the plot of) as if it were brand new–and, to some degree, let the things we thought familiar, renew themselves.
I wish I had a chance to see this play once more with this mindset. I feel as though my Western prejudices tricked me into expecting the play to be something it wasn’t remotely trying to be. While, in the end, the play may suffer from the same fate as a noh performance that one just doesn’t like, I would like to give Hanjo and the SITI Company the chance I didn’t give it the first time around.