Suzaku Gate Introduction

Miscellaneous play (category four) by Megan McCarty

Music in the Heian period made up a significant part of court culture and all nobles of the capital were expected to be able to play at least one instrument. Among the people of the court, there were some who were especially proficient in music. Minamoto no Hiromasa was one such person. A number of legends speak of Hiromasa and his handlings of rare court lutes and flutes. These tales were taken as the main source material for this play, but quotations other sources such as the Collections of Ancient and Modern Japanese Poems also appear. In addition, allusions to Pure Land Buddhism are very numerous. Pure Land Buddhism was the sect which was popular in the Heian period. It emphasized belief in the hope for rebirth in Amida Buddha’s Western Land for those living during the Decline of the Law, a time when one was said to be unable to achieve Enlightenment. In using a combination popular legends, refined poetry, and religious imagery, the play takes on depth and encompasses the various aspects of Heian life.

The theme which runs through the play is: beauty in the midst of darkness. Nostalgia for the past and hope for the future paint a bright picture of joy, peace, and beauty. On the other hand, there is the reality of the present – suspended between past and future in the darkness of the night at Suzaku Gate. This balance of dark and light is complementary, as is yin and yang. Thus, the play’s mood is able to shift from celebratory, to become sad and pensive, finally ending with the hope of Buddhist rebirth.

The element tying this variable palette together is music. Music has both secular and religious meaning in the play. The playing of music is Hiromasa’s art and also the call of Amida Buddha when he comes to save souls. More concretely, it is the flute from Byodoin which unites the shite (main character) and waki (secondary character). Through these associations, the shite comes to represent both the former glories of the Golden Age of Japan and the musicians of Amida Buddha’s chorus. Though Hiromasa appears lost in the midst of the night in the dark world of men, there is the hope of salvation for him and all men.

Suzaku Gate is a dream play, with two acts. The second and final dan are particularly important as they introduce the shite in his two forms. Both dan begin with vibrant lines which reflect the color of the Heian arts, but they end differently. The former ends in gloom, recalling how all is ephemeral, including the great Heian period. The second dan, however, ends with a more hopeful view, as the chorus sings of rebirth in the Pure Land.

The dance sequences of this play combine those images of light and dark, both melancholy and joyous aspects to existence. Those symbols associated with Minamoto no Hiromasa are emphasized: Heian music and dance, guardianship of the capital, Suzaku gateway where he played music, and his association with autumn. The movements are sweeping and resolute to symbolize his determination and skill. The dances and play in general have been carefully orchestrated so as to present the character and legacy of Minamoto no Hiromasa.

.Megan McCarty - September 2007.