Character Definition in Hagoromo

by Hanna


The pine tree at Mio.

Recently, I’ve begun writing a paper about Hagoromo, which I will be submitting for my application to the master’s program at the University of Tokyo. A lot of what I’ve written will be revised multiple times, especially when I translate it in Japanese, before I hand it in.  Following is just one section of my paper.  I would love everyone’s feedback on my ideas.

In this section, I’m writing about standard plot and character development patterns.  I have never written about this before, so please correct me if any of my statements are oversimplified or plainly wrong.

Character development in Hagoromo

First, a quick run through of the story line: The supporting actor, a fisherman, comes onstage and presents himself.  He finds a feather cloak hanging from a pine branch on Mio beach and takes it with him.  Thereupon, the owner of the cloak appears.  She is an angel from the moon and wants the cloak back to return to her home in the sky.  The fisherman refuses.  Here is the first and most obvious conflict of the play.  Eventually, the fisherman feels compassion for the angel and returns her cloak in exchange for a dance.  This dance takes up the majority of the play and might be said to represent a more psychological conflict between the two characters leading up to their parting ways again.

Please note that the focal character, the angel, is not a dynamic character.  She gets her own way in the conflict, therefore, does not undergo a change, and returns to her previous state of existence.  It is the lesser, supporting character, who undergoes development, but this development is understated.  Instead, the effect of the resolution on the main character is emphasized in the protracted dance at the end of the play.  Why might this be so?

This final dance can be said to express the joy of the angel, at having received her cloak again.  In it she expresses her thanks to the fisherman through dance, something she states explicitly towards the end of the first act.

However, this interpretation of the dance as a divinity’s expression of thanks to a mortal seems simple to a point of being superficial.  Could it not be said that the focal character’s dance in some way represents the development in the supporting character?  Is not the angel’s dance an expression and celebration of the fisherman’s moral act, his compassion?

This idea that the characters’ individual integrity is not clearly delineated is not a mere conjecture.  Technically speaking, the noh chorus often takes up lines from the main character, but also describes the scene or embellishes the narrative with poetry.  (This chorus, however, has no role or character of its own as choruses of Greek tragedy do.)

Furthermore in noh, focal and supporting characters engage in mondo, which literally translated means question and answer, but the structure of such mondo is rather something like finishing the other person’s sentence.  The two characters continue each other’s lines.  These lines are broken up differently from one school of noh performance to the next.  In live performance, the musical qualities of a mondo builds tension as the two performers push the boundaries of the rhythm.

Following is the mondo from Hagoromo as it is performed by the Kanze school first, followed by the Kongo school version.  The focal character, the angel, is indicated as “Shite,” the supporting character, the fisherman (named Hakuryo), as “Waki.”  Before this part of the mondo, the fisherman has refused to return the cloak.  At the end of the mondo, the chorus delivers a dramatic chant.

Kanze Version:

Shite    In her desperate plight, the angel now,
like a wingless bird,
moving to rise, still lacks her mantle,
Waki    yet the earth to her is the nether world.
Shite    What then shall I do?
in distress she cries,
Waki    and when Hakuryo still withholds the mantle,
Shite    helpless,
Waki    hopeless,

Kongo version:

Shite    In her desperate plight, the angel now,
like a wingless bird,
Waki    moving to rise, still lacks her mantle,
Shite    yet the earth to her is the nether world.
Waki    What then shall I do?
Shite    in distress she cries,
Waki    and when Hakuryo still withholds the mantle,
Shite    helpless,
Both    hopeless,

(Translation of the Kanze version by Royall Tyler, adapted to the Kongo version by the author.  Please note that the pronouns were added by the translator, however, the word “angel” said by the angel in the first line and the name of the fisherman “Hakuryo” said by the fisherman in the seventh line are unchanged from the original Japanese version.)

Although in both schools of performance, the focal character begins the mondo and the supporting character ends it, in the middle section, whole lines shift from one character to the other.  In the Kongo version, the fisherman’s description of the angel moving to rise, but unable to fly without her mantle or cloak seems more cold-hearted on his part than the same line delivered by the angel in the Kanze version.  In the Kanze version, the fisherman’s description of the earth as the nether world could be applied to his situation as well as the angel’s situation.  Similarly, in the Kongo version, the fisherman’s cry of “What then shall I do?” could be applied to his situation instead of to the angel’s.  In this way, the meaning of the lines and therefore the depiction of the two characters shift slightly from one version to the next.  The characters seem to be both antagonistic and empathetic at the same time.

Thus, it is obvious that the distinction between the characters is vague.  They are not two unique individuals.  Instead they are connected.  They share traits and ideas that are difficult to assign to one or the other.  Precisely as the conflict between them builds, they seem to switch roles.  The fisherman seems to react coldly to the angel’s predicament as he laments his own situation living on earth, the nether world.  The angel has become helpless and hopeless.  She has become mortal exactly like the fisherman, who joins in her lament.  Or it should be said that the angel joins the mortal fisherman in his lament, for he has been mortal for far longer than she.

Here, our initial attempt to describe the dramatic development of the play as a conflict between two distinct characters falters.  This in addition to the early resolution of the plot and the second rising action in the consequent dance taking up the majority of the play’s duration give the play an enigmatic quality.  Despite the narrative’s initial impression of simplicity, it does not conform easily to interpretation.  Certain elements tease the viewer to reconsider the play’s meaning.

About these ads