The flower as a metaphor in Japanese Theatre

Zeami was the original practitioner of Japanese Noh theatre and wrote a classic book on dramatic theory called Kadensho. He uses images of nature as a constant metaphor, for example hana, or the flower. Kenneth Yasuda, in his book Masterworks of The Noh Theatre claims that ‘This flower is both an aesthetic principle and the soul of the actor or the character or the play, and it is, beyond that, a spiritual quest. Every element of the play, every gesture, must be devoted to the flower.’ Thus we can clearly see the weight of importance given to this one symbol, but why is he so interested in using it as a metaphor, in the context of Noh Theatre?

The title of his book Kadensho can be roughly translated as “Floral Message: How Does the Wind Look?”. Zeami is using the metaphor of a flower to imply that one must possess sophisticated or ‘flowery’ skills to achieve anything in Noh Theatre. Zeami saw the flower as a sophisticated and complicated thing. This is true (see below). Zeami felt that learning theatrical skills is sophisticated and complex; just like flowers.

Zeami also sees the flower as a metaphor for viewing a performance. The flower sheds its petals and goes through many different stages in what it looks like, starting from a bud, to disappearing completely, and this is a visible process. Similarly, in front of an audience we see a theatrical event before hand as if it didn’t exist, it then bursts into life on the stage before once more disappearing. The flower is important to Zeami as he feels that this allows us to truly understand what the performance is.

Then we come to the concept of Yugen which he defines as ‘a profound, mysterious sense of the beauty of the universe […] and the sad beauty of human suffering’. This can be simply related to the flower as a metaphor, the flower is so visually enticing when alive, yet Zeami believed that when a flower begins to die the process is all the more beautiful. Zeami saw human suffering as an alluring act. Noh Theatre portrays human life as it is — assuming that pain is a process all must undergo — some believe that human suffering in its own way is beautiful.

Zeami has been known to compare the flower with the idea of omoskiroki or in English, ‘fascination’. Zeami sees the flower as something to be in awe of. In relation to its metaphor within Noh Theatre, we see his encouragement for the audience to be fascinated by the performance, thus he weighs importance on the concept in this case in order to amaze the spectator.

Another key word is mezurashiki which means ‘novelty’ implying that the flower can be something new and exciting. When this metaphor is replicated on stage — through interaction actors have with each other and the audience — they see that there is now a certain thrill in experiencing this, just like the joy one finds in viewing a flower. So the metaphor is important in this context because it excites the audience, just like one might feel towards nature.

We can see that this points to another theory Zeami has about the similarity between the way one cultivates flowers and the way the performer seeks to harvest a relationship with his or her audience. Zeami wants to reinforce this link as actor/spectator relationships are central to understanding Theatre, especially Noh Theatre.

Finding beauty in nature is something unique to the human soul. No matter who the person is, there is a certainty that any person from any background will find the flower beautiful. In the same way Zeami seeks to reinforce this concept. If the Theatre is like the flower, it can be loved and appreciated by all.

Finally Zeami reminds the reader of ‘the beauty of the flower of youth, which passes with time.’ This is an important metaphor to him as it reminds his audience of the fragility and fleeting nature of life. Many would argue that this is the most accurate and profound part of Zeami’s thinking, though not all see it as a positive concept, as mankind is left without hope as to what happens after his decease. Christianity was not to reach Japan until 1549,  but Zeami’s sentiments are echoed in the following bible verse,

All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever.

In theatre as well as in normal life, Zeami held a view in mind that more modern practitioners should ponder. He knew that his petals would soon fall and perish. However Zeami’s flower metaphor shouldn’t necessarily discourage us, all is not swallowed up into the earth, the roots remain and buds appear once more. If looked at from the right angle, there is hope for theatre, and there is hope for humanity.

5 thoughts on “The flower as a metaphor in Japanese Theatre

  1. Absolutely stunning thought-sharing about hana, the flower of Noh aka the Flower of Accomplishment. Thank you! This week i was at a funeral and i ‘saw’ (in my mind’s eye) the Flower for the first time. I saw it in my husband as he spoke about his father, then i saw it in my daughter as she delivered her poem about her grandfather. I felt enormous joy to realise that the Flower – visibly obvious – is the “connector” as the 4th wall falls; boundaries and skins, codes and conventions that (normally) separate us from each other fall away in true grief…

  2. Generally I do not post on blogs, but I would love to mention that this post extremely forced me to try and do therefore! Really nice. Thank you.

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