Character Definition in Hagoromo


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.

4 thoughts on “Character Definition in Hagoromo

  1. Hey! So I came across this blog post while I was researching for my topic in a paper I have to write called Research Investigation in a course I’m taking now, IB Theatre Arts. My research question is how What would a Noh actor need to understand in preparation of the Angel role in the play Hagomoro by Zeami Motokiyo?

    So after reading this blog post, the distinction between the characters are much clearer. I also read in the ‘About’ section that you are currently studying Noh Theatre? Maybe you could help guide me in answering this research question. The points I will talk about in my paper are 1) Zeami’s treaties, 2) basic structure of a noh play/categories/characters, 3) the stage, 4) mirror room, 5) more in-depth description of shite, 6) movement patterns, 7) costume, and 8) nohmen.

    1. Dear Esther,

      Thank you for your interest in Noh! There are so much out there on it, that the challenge may be finding just the right materials for you.

      Since you seem mostly interested in the performance side of things, I recommend looking for work by Monika Bethe or Karen Brazell. They collaborated with Richard Emmert on a series of Noh Performance Guides that were published by the National Noh Theater in Tokyo (, but those may be exceptionally hard to come by outside of Japan and since they don’t have one for “Hagoromo,” the closest one you might find would be about the play “Matsukaze.”

      Resources that might be easier to find would include Royall Tyler’s great introduction to performance in the introduction to his translations in Japanese No Dramas ( and the introduction and beautifully done translation by William Scott Wilson of Zeami’s theoretical work on Noh performance, The Flowering Spirit ( It’s hard to say to what extent Zeami dealt with acting the waki role, because those distinctions weren’t around when he wrote (in the late 14th and 15th centuries) and most of the roles he mentions are now known as shite roles. Also, although I like his book, William Scott Wilson is not a major Noh scholar, and there are more technical translations of Zeami’s work out there, including compilations of many Zeami texts, since Zeami wrote quite a lot. See what you can find at your library by searching for “Zeami.” I hope something comes up.

      There is also very little information out there on the waki role, only a little here a little there. It may be most realistic to take a look at the website about Noh created by the National Noh Theater ( There should be information there covering all the areas you asked about. If you have any further questions, I’ll see what I can do.

      Good luck!

  2. Sorry, I meant to say the Fishermen role; which is a waki. So for 5), I would talk about the role of a waki, not a shite. Hopefully you can email me back with some more advice/information. Thank you.

  3. Hello :D Just like Esther, I came across your article while looking for sources and information on Noh and Hagoromo. I’m currently studying Theatre and for our Theory & Context lessons, we are studying about Noh and we have to do a research investigation on one of the aspects of Noh. I’ve decided to find out what knowledge would a costume designer of the celestial maiden in Zeami’s Hagoromo need. Your article gave me a new insight on it and though it may not end up in my research paper, it helped me understand the text better! Thank you for that! Yay :) Peace

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