Fragment of a medieval scroll

The supernatural power of the performing artist in medieval Japan: fragment of a medieval scroll

Marian Ury

FEW THINGS CAN BE MORE INTERESTING than pointing a student along a path that one has long since taken oneself. The first question encountered in this endeavor is whether the new translator is obliged to use the formulas and language of his teacher and predecessors or instead adopt fresh construction of his original design. The solution to this obstacle manifested itself over a long period of time in which the student and I engaged in lengthy exchanges regarding the assets and liabilities of both approaches. Both of us gained from our discussions, as he benefited from my experience, and I from a perspective that was eager to deviate from the norm. The decision we reached was that he should temper both originality and traditional formulas in favor of maintaining faithfulness not only to the meaning of the text, but the grammatical and syntactical subtleties which distinguish this genre of literature.

— M. U.

SEVERAL YEARS AGO, I made an extensive survey of fictional and nonfictional literature pertaining to Japanese music for the purpose of formulating a topic for my dissertation research. This survey included musicology texts, aesthetic treatises by great masters, texts of songs and musical drama, and a wide variety of anecdotal literature about music. Having studied primarily musical composition as an undergraduate, I found myself drawn to the many prose works which express the Japanese attitude towards the roles of the composer, the performer, and their identities as creative artists. Among the works I examined was an extensive number of short prose compositions from various collections of anecdotal literature, which relate accounts of legendary musicians from Japanese and Chinese folklore. These stories, written for the literate citizen of medieval Japan, and even somewhat awkwardly constructed as demonstrated by the example below, emphasize the importance bestowed on the abilities of the performer — as opposed to the composer — in the creative act, an attitude shared by the writers of Japan’s great treatises on music and drama. The excerpt below demonstrates the emphasis on the supernatural powers possessed by the gifted performer of music in classical and legendary Japan. Here, the performer’s skill is so sensitive and beautiful, that even beings from the world beyond have been moved to come, listen, and dance.

— G. P.

The Kitanohe Minister and the Middle Councillor Haseo

AT A TIME NOW LONG PAST, there was a man called the Northern Minister of the Left. His given name was Makoto, and he was a son of Emperor Saga. It was because he resided on the north side of Ichijo that he was called Northern Minister. He excelled in everything imaginable, and in particular, he was indescribably accomplished in the way of the musical arts. Among these arts, his playing of the so no koto was beyond compare.

Now then, one evening, the minister was playing his koto. The desire to continue playing lasted. all throughout the night, and as dawn approached, he played, producing secret melodies with the most exquisite skill. Even he was moved — “How magnificent!” he thought. Then, directly before him, on top of the raised lattices in the entrance way, something shining became visible. “I wonder what it could be that is shining?” he wondered! He looked on calmly and saw that there were two or three celestial beings, each only about one foot in height, dancing brilliantly. The minister looked upon this and thought, “Moved by hearing me play the koto and produce the auspicious melodies, the heavenly beings have come forth and are dancing!” He was overcome with a feeling of profound reverence. This was truly a rare and magnificent event.

There was moreover a Professor of Literature, the Middle Councilor Ki-no-Haseo. He was a scholar unparalleled throughout the world. One moonlit night, this man emerged from the west gate of the Academy and stood on the steps of the Ceremonial Gate. When he gazed to the north, atop the upper level of the Suzaku Gate, he saw a man wearing a helmet and an officer’s shirt, whose stature was just short of the height of the roof ridge-pole. The man fervently chanted poetry while walking about in circles. Haseo looked upon this and thought, “I am seeing a spirit who has taken human form. If I do say so myself, my skills must be beyond compare!” This too was a supernatural occurrence.

Among the people of ancient times, there truly are those who have beheld such strange manifestations. So it has been told and transmitted.

Translated by Marian Ury and Gregory Polakoff

Translator’s note: Professor Marian Ury spent many weeks enthusiastically helping me with the completion of this project, but, to my great sorrow, did not live to see its completion. The study and translation of setsuwa (medieval Japanese anecdotal literature) are among her greatest contributions to the study of Japanese Literature. The introduction by Professor Ury as it appears above is a reconstruction of an incomplete draft she wrote several days before passing away.

COPYRIGHT 1996 Fairleigh Dickinson University

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group