Discovering “Nōgaku”: The Blossoming of Tradition

“Teika”: A Work of All-Consuming Passion from the Nō Repertoire


The second article in the Discovering Nōgaku series continues the dialogue between the head of the Kanze School of nōgaku and a leading scholar of the traditional stage art, who examine nō’s treatment of amorous passion in a play depicting the affair between an imperial high priestess and one of Japanese most renowned waka poets.

Kanze Kiyokazu

Born in 1959 as the eldest son of Kanze Sakon, the twenty-fifth grand master of the Kanze School. First performed on stage at age four and succeeded his father in 1990 as the twenty-sixth head of the school, which claims the largest number of professional nōgaku performers. Received the Minister of Education’s Art Encouragement Prize for New Artists in 1996 and was designated a Chevalier of the French Order of Arts and Letters in 1999. Has performed frequently in foreign countries, including France, the United States, India, and China. Certified as a possessor of an important intangible cultural property. Chairs the Association of Kanze and the Kanze Foundation and is an executive trustee of the Association for Japanese Noh Plays. Also serves as a Board of Councils member for the Japan Arts Council and lectures at the Faculty of Music of Tokyo University of the Arts.

A Muromachi Tale of Amorous Passion

MATSUOKA SHINPEI  The second of our discussions on the theatrical art of nōgaku will focus on the theme of love, particularly the kind that arouses passions so deep as to survive even beyond the grave.

KANZE KIYOKAZU  Love is intimately connected with the joys and sorrows of the human experience and is an integral theme in the theatrical arts throughout history. So I think it’s a theme to which modern audiences can readily relate.

MATSUOKA  There are a number of plays in the repertoire dealing with passionate love,(*1) one of them being Teika, written by Konparu Zenchiku [ca. 1405–70].(*2) We’ll be looking at how expresses this theme through the example of this play.

KANZE  The love depicted in Teika is quite passionate and intense, and it’s surprising to find such depictions in a play dating from the Muromachi period [1336–1573].

MATSUOKA  The story recounts the affair between two historical figures: Princess Shokushi [1149–1201],(*3) the third daughter of Emperor Go-Shirakawa who served as a saiin, or high priestess,(*4) at Kamo Shrine, and Fujiwara no Teika [1162–1241],(*5) the leading poet of his time. It is a tale of forbidden love told from the viewpoint of the imperial princess, who is tormented by her breach of the Buddhist precept against improper sexual conduct. Some maintain that the romance has no basis in historical fact, considering the difference in their ages, so it may have been fictionalized by Zenchiku based on popular folklore.

Vacillating Between Freedom and Love

The ghost of Princess Shokushi asks the monk to pray for her salvation.

MATSUOKA  Symbolizing Teika’s clinging obsession for Princess Shokushi—even after their death—is the grave of the princess placed in the middle of the stage, blanketed by a climbing vine. This is the Asiatic jasmine vine, known as Teika kazura, which was actually named after Teika. As a traveling monk passes by the grave, he is stopped by the ghost of Princess Shokushi—here incarnated as a young woman—who recounts her passionate affair with the poet, over which she continues to be obsessed in the afterworld, and asks the monk to pray for her salvation.

KANZE  In portraying the princess, the actor must express her pain and suffering. So there’s not much movement while she’s under Teika’s spell, suggesting the ferocity of his clasp. It is through the filter of Teika’s karmic obsession that the princess’s frailty and weakness are expressed.

When the monk begins reciting a Buddhist sutra, the stranglehold gradually loosens, and the princess slowly regains her freedom of movement, prompting her to repay his kindness by performing the Hōon no mai, or Dance of Gratitude—the highlight of the play. The dance should not be an unbridled celebration of her release, however, but be tinged with restraint.

MATSUOKA  After all, the dance must convey the princess’s memories of her passionate affair with Teika, her suffering even after death, and her eventual release through the monk’s prayers. Interestingly, though, after her dance, the ghost of the princess returns to her grave. 

Performing a Dance of Gratitude.

KANZE  This is a very important scene suggesting that the princess has yet to fully overcome her hellish agony. She appeared emancipated for a moment, but she soon finds herself in Teika’s amorous clasp again.  

A play like Izutsu, which also deals with the theme of passionate love, ends with a beautiful dance suggesting the protagonist’s former radiance. Her soul is comforted, and she returns to a more peaceful abode in the world beyond. Such endings are typical of plays by Zeami. But with Zenchiku’s Teika, the joy of being liberated is short-lived, for the princess returns to her former grave, overgrown with the vines that eventually completely engulf it.

MATSUOKA  So after vacillating over her choice, she ultimately chooses to be with her love, rather than seek spiritual salvation. The play thus ends on a rather heavy-hearted note, with the protagonist ultimately turning her back on the emancipation that she had long sought.

Falling “Beautifully”

KANZE  A part of the princess doesn’t find Teika’s clasp repelling. She talks of being mutually obsessed with amorous passion and returns to the grave overgrown with Teika kazura, despite having broken free at one point. In a sense, she finds comfort in the vines’ clasp.

MATSUOKA  Since they were “mutually obsessed,” this must mean that Teika’s love was not unrequited. [Laughs] I would think that portraying the princess’s conflicting longing to be free and at the same time to remain chained can very difficult for young nō actors.

Princess Shokushi returns to her grave, covered with Teika kazura vines.

KANZE  I still vividly remember what my father [Sakon, the twenty-fifth grandmaster of the Kanze School] told me when I was rehearsing this play while still a young man. Referring to the last scene, when the princess returns to her grave and falls to her knees, covering her face with her fan, he said that the play should “end on a beautiful and colorful note.” His advice didn’t make any sense to me then. After all, she had just been released from agony by a monk’s prayers, danced in gratitude for his kindness, and yet chosen to return to Teika’s clasping grip and more suffering. She turned her back on the peaceful bliss that she had so ardently sought, so why should this merit a beautiful and colorful ending?

MATSUOKA  It might be an expression of the thrill of falling back into the abyss, an imperial priestess turning up her nose at convention and surrendering to her carnal instincts.

KANZE  It’s an admittedly dark and suffocating world, with which young actors are probably not yet familiar. So it’s almost impossible to teach them this play. How can you explain what “amorous obsession” feels like if you’ve never experienced it yourself? They have to do a little growing up first before they can perform Teika. [Laughs]

The Avant-Garde World of Zenchiku

KANZE  I would guess that the play was considerably ahead of its time when it was first performed.

MATSUOKA  Zenchiku was well acquainted with the leading poets and religious figures(*6) of his day and was at the forefront of the cultural elite. In addition to nō plays, he wrote a number of philosophical treatises about the nō theater. I think it was because of such broad knowledge and background that he was able to write such an avant-garde play like Teika.

KANZE  I’ve always found it curious that the sutra the monk recites in the play is the Hokekyō, or Lotus Sutra, considered to contain the highest of Buddhist teachings. But if the princess cannot attain salvation even with the help of this sutra and returns to Teika’s clasp, this can, in a sense, be taken as a rejection of this sutra. Of course, such a repudiation would have been unthinkable in the Muromachi period, and indeed there are many other plays, notably Michimori,(*7) in which the protagonist does find solace with the aid of the Lotus Sutra. A rejection of this sutra could mean undermining the very premise on which the nō theater stands.

MATSUOKA  I doubt that Zenchiku meant to reject Buddhist teachings altogether. He was known for his faith in Kangiten,(*8) the Japanese Buddhist form of the Hindu god Ganesha. Kangiten doesn’t force people with strong carnal desires to reject their impulses but recognizes they will be more receptive to Buddhist law once their desires are fulfilled. No stigmas are attached to sexual conduct, and in fact it is encouraged as a way of raising one’s energy level. These teachings came to be rejected in the Edo period [1603–1868] as heretical but were widely embraced—without feelings of guilt or remorse—during Zenchiku’s time.

After turning sixty, he took time to pray to Kangiten at a temple with his wife—that is, Zeami’s daughter—and his prayers were for the return of his virility. He was hoping, in other words, to be able to pleasure his wife again. That he would actually jot things like this down in his diary attests to Zenchiku’s heartwarming honesty.

KANZE  Given his background and his beliefs, Zenchiku certainly didn’t think that sexual conduct was something to be frowned upon.

MATSUOKA  Teika was Japan’s leading poet at the time, but Princess Shokushi was an outstanding poet as well. I think Zenchiku wrote Teika out of his admiration for the two and portrayed the two as divine “bodhisattvas of poetry.”

KANZE  It might have been out of such considerations that my father taught me to end the play on a beautiful note.

Masks used in Teika
, left (carver unknown), was used for the village woman (incarnation of Princess Shokushi) in the first half of the play. Deigan, right (Kawachi), was used for the ghost of Princess Shokushi herself in the second half. Despite outward signs of anguish and suffering, the Deigan mask also hints at the protagonist’s former beauty.


(Originally written in Japanese. Photographs and editorial assistance courtesy of the Association of Kanze. Portrait photographs by Ōkubo Keizō. Video by Ōtani Kiyohide.)

Also in this series 

“Nōgaku” Drama Kept Alive by Family Traditions
Matsuoka Shinpei

(*1) ^ Among other well-known works on this theme are Izutsu, which portrays the love between Ariwara no Narihira and the daughter of Ki no Aritsune, and Nonomiya, focusing on Rokujō no Miyasudokoro, one of Prince Genji’s lovers in the Genji monogatari (trans. The Tale of Genji).

(*2) ^ Muromachi-period nō actor and playwright and Zeami’s son-in-law. Author of such plays as Bashō and Yōkihi. Was well versed in waka poetry and Buddhist thought and wrote a number of philosophical treatises about the nō theater, such as Rokurin ichiro (The Six Wheels and the Drop of Dew) and Meishuku shū (Collective Writings Illuminating the Indwelling Deity). Became head of the Konparu School of nō and set the direction for its subsequent growth and development. 

(*3) ^ The third daughter of Emperor Go-Shirakawa and his consort, Fujiwara no Shigeko (daughter of Fujiwara no Suenari); step-sister of Emperor Takakura. Was a renowned poet and has a verse included in the Ogura hyakunin isshu (Single Poems by 100 Poets).

(*4) ^ An unwed woman of imperial lineage who served the deities at Kamo Shrine (now Kamigamo and Shimogamo Shrines) in Kyoto. Thirty-five saiin priestesses were appointed during the Heian and Kamakura periods, a number of whom appear as objects of “forbidden love” in such Heian literary works as the Tale of Ise Monogatari (trans. The Tales of Ise).

(*5) ^ Japan’s leading waka poet in the late Heian to Kamakura periods. Compiler of Shin kokin wakashū (New Collection from Ancient and Modern Times)and Shin chokusen wakashū (New Imperial Collection). Known for his brilliant and exquisitely detailed style, Teika also wrote many treatises on waka and kept a diary, called Meigetsuki (Journal of the Full Moon), over much of his career. Was also a noted and distinctive calligrapher.

(*6) ^ Among his many acquaintances were kanpaku (regent) and poet Ichijō Kaneyoshi (1402–81), renga poet Yamazaki Sōkan ( –1553), credited with developing the haikai form, and iconoclastic Zen Buddhist monk and poet Ikkyū Sōjun (1394–1481).

(*7) ^ A nō play depicting the amorous relationship between Taira no Michimori and his wife Kosaishō no Tsubone, based on Heike Monogatari (trans. The Tale of the Heike). The play ends with the ghost of Michimori—who died in the Genpei War—disappearing after expressing his joy over his salvation thanks to a monk’s prayers.

(*8) ^ Many statues of the elephant-headed deva are of the male-female Kangiten standing in an embrace. In Japan, such statues are often contained in miniature shrines and hidden from public view.

tradition nōgaku