Keene translation: Matisoff, Susan

About the electronic version
Keene translation: Matisoff, Susan
Creation of machine-readable version: Charlotte Robertson and Winnie Chan
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Conversion to TEI.2-conformant markup: University of Virginia Library Electronic Text Center.
University of Virginia Library.
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   Japanese Text Initiative

Note: (ETC) The text has been given an id of KeeSemi because this edition is commonly referred to as the Keene translation.
About the print version
Twenty Plays of the No Theatre
Susan Matisoff Editor Donald Keene

   1st Edition

Columbia University Press
New York

   Records of Civilization: Sources and Studies, number LXXXV

   Prepared for the University of Virginia Library Electronic Text Center.

Published: 1970

Revisions to the electronic version
August 1997 corrector Catherine Tousignant, Electronic Text Center
  • Added milestones to correspond with ZeaSemi.

  • February 1997 corrector Winnie Chan
  • Added TEI header and tags.

  • Commercial use prohibited; all usage governed by our Conditions of Use:
    Final checking: David Seaman

    Page 100


        Semimaru, a work of the fourth category, was written by Zeami. The story of Semimaru, the blind biwa player -- the biwa is a kind of lute -- appears as early as the twelfth-century collection of tales, Konjaku Monogatari, but apparently has no historical basis. The Konjaku Monogatari version relates that Semimaru lived near the barrier of Osaka, between Kyoto and Lake Biwa. Once he had been in the service of a courtier, a famous biwa master, and learned to play by listening to his master. Minamoto Hakuga, the son of a prince, heard of Semimaru's skill and wished to bring him to the Capital. Semimaru, however, refused. So eager was he to hear Semimaru's biwa that Hakuga journeyed to Mt. Osaka, a wild and distant place in those days, though today a half-hour journey from Kyoto.

        By the time of the writing of the Heike Monogatari, a century later, Semimaru had become known as the fourth son of the Emperor Daigo (r. 897-930). Like the Semimaru of the Konjaku Monogatari, he lived by a barrier, but it was the one at Shinomiya Kawara. A man named Hakuga no Sammi was so anxious to hear him play that he visited Semimaru's hut every day, rain or shine, for three years without fail.

    Page 101

        Zeami borrowed from various versions of the legend of Semimaru as known in his day, but especially from the Heike Monogatari. No previous version of the story, however, mentions Princess Sakagami, who was apparently Zeami's creation. Semimaru is one of the rare plays in which the tsure (Semimaru) is nearly as important as the shite (Sakagami); another such play is Komachi of the Hundred Nights.

        Semimaru is perhaps the most tragic play of the entire No repertory. Unlike The Sought-for Grave, in which Unai returns to earth to tell of her endless torments in hell, the tragedy of Semimaru takes place in this world, and involves two human beings who are nearly as real and immediate to us as characters in Western drama.

        During the height of the fanatical nationalism of the 1930s and 1940s Semimaru was banned from the stage for its alleged disrespect to the Imperial Family, but today it is performed by all schools of No.

    Page 102


    Prince Semimaru (tsure):
    Kiyotsura, an imperial envoy (waki):
    Two Palanquin Bearers (wakizure):
    Hakuga No Sammi (kyogen):
    Princess Sakagami, Semimaru's sister (shite):



    Mt. Osaka in Omi Province



    The Reign of Emperor Daigo; the eighth month

    Page 103


    [ The stage assistant places a representation of a hut at the waki-position. Semimaru enters, wearing the semimaru mask. He is flanked by two Palanquin Bearers who hold a canopy over him. Kiyotsura follows them. ]


    The world is so unsure, unknowable;
    Who knows -- our griefs may hold our greatest hopes.
    This nobleman is the Prince Semimaru
    Fourth child of the Emperor Daigo.

    Kiyotsura and Attendants

    Truly in this uncertain world
    All that befalls us comes our way
    As recompense for what we've done before.
    In his previous existence
    He observed intently the laws of Buddha
    And in this life was born a prince,
    Yet why was it -- ever since he lay,
    An infant wrapped in swaddling clothes
    His eyes have both been blind: For him
    The sun and moon in heaven have no light;
    In the black of night his lamp is dark;
    The rain before the dawn never ends.


    His nights and days have been spent this way,
    But now what plan has the Emperor conceived?
    He ordered us to escort the Prince in secret,
    To abandon him on Mount Osaka
    And to shave his head in priestly tonsure.
    The Emperor's words, once spoken
    Are final -- what immense pity I feel!
    Yet, such being the command, I am powerless;

    Kiyotsura and Attendants

    Like lame-wheeled carriages
    We creep forth reluctantly
    On the journey from the Capital;
    How hard it is to say farewell

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    As dawn clouds streak the east!
    Today lie first departs the Capital
    When again to return? His chances are as fragile
    As unraveled threads too thin to intertwine.
    Friendless, his destination is unknown.
    Even without an affliction
    Good fortune is elusive in this world,
    Like the floating log the turtle gropes for
    Once a century: The path is in darkness
    And he, a blind turtle, must follow it.
    Now as the clouds of delusion rise
    We have reached Mount Osaka
    We have reached Mount Osaka.

    [ Semimaru sits on a stool before the Chorus. Kiyotsura kneels at the shite-pillar. The Bearers exit through the slit door. ]




        I am before you.

    [ From his kneeling position, he bows deeply. ]


        Are you to leave me on this mountain?


        Yes, your highness. So the Emperor has commanded, and I have brought you this far. But I wonder just where I should leave you.

    Since the days of the ancient sage kings
    Our Emperors have ruled the country wisely,
    Looking after its people with compassion --
    But what can his Majesty have had in mind?
    Nothing could have caught me so unprepared.


        What a foolish thing to say, Kiyotsura. I was born blind because I was lax in my religious duties in a former life.

    That is why the Emperor, my father,
    Ordered you to leave me in the wilderness,
    Heartless this would seem, but it's his plan
    To purge in this world my burden from the past,
    And spare me suffering in the world to come.
    This is a father's true kindness.
    You should not bewail his decree.

    Page 105


    Now I shall shave your head.
    His Majesty has so commanded.


        What does this act signify?


    It means you have become a priest,
    A most joyous event.

    [ Semimaru rises, The stage assistant removes his nobleman's outer robe and places a priest's hat on his head. ]


        Surely Seishi's poem described such a scene:

    "I have cut my fragrant scented hair
    My head is pillowed half on sandalwood,"


    Such splendid clothes will summon thieves, I fear.
    Allow me to take your robe and give you instead
    This cloak of straw they call a mino.

    [ Semimaru mimes receiving the mino. ]


    Is this the mino mentioned in the lines.
    "I went to Tamino Island when it rained"?


    And I give you this kasa rainhat
    To protect you also from the rain and dew.

    [ He takes a kasa from the stage assistant and hands it to Semimaru. ]


    Then this must be the kasa of the poem
    "Samurai -- take a kasa for your lord."

    [ Semimaru puts down the kasa. ]


    And this staff will guide you on your way.
    Please take it in your hands.

    [ He takes a staff from the stage assistant and hands it to Semimaru. ]


    Is this the staff about which Henjo wrote:
    "Since my staff was fashioned by the gods
    I can cross the mountain of a thousand years"?

    [ Kiyotsura kneels at the shite-pillar. ]


    His staff brought a thousand prosperous years,


    But here the place is Mount Osaka,


    A straw-thatched hut by the barrier;


    Bamboo pillars and staff, my sole support.


    By your father, the Emperor,




    I meet my unsure fate at Mount Osaka.
    You who know me, you who know me not

    Page 106

    Behold -- this is how a prince, Daigo's son,
    Has reached the last extremity of grief.

    [ He lowers his head to give a sad expression to his mask. ]

    Travelers and men on horses
    Riding to and from the Capital,
    Many people, dressed for their journeys,
    Will drench their sleeves in sudden showers
    How hard it is to abandon him,
    To leave him all alone --
    How hard it is to abandon him,
    To tear ourselves away.

    [ Kiyotsura bows to Semimaru. ]

    But even farewells must have an end;
    By the light of the daybreak moon
    Stifling tears that have no end, they depart.

    [ Weeping, Kiyotsura goes to the bridgeway. ]

    Semimaru, the Prince, left behind alone,
    Takes in his arms his lute, his one possession,
    Clutches his staff and falls down weeping.

    [ Semimaru picks up the staff and kasa, comes forward, and turns toward the departing Kiyotsura. Kiyotsura stops at the second pine and looks back at him, then exits. Semimaru retreats, kneels, drops his kasa and staff, and weeps. Hakuga no Sammi enters and stands at the naming-place. ]


        I am Hakuga no Sammi. 8 I have learned that Prince Semimaru has been abandoned on Mount Osaka and it pains me so much to think of him at the mercy of the rain and dew that I have decided to build a straw hut where he may live. [ He opens the door, of the hut, then goes to Semimaru at the shite-pillar. ]
    The hut is ready at last, I shall inform him of this. [ He bows to Semimaru. ]
    Pardon me, sir; Hakuga is before you. If you stay here in this way, you will be soaked by the rain. I have built you a straw hut and I hope you will live in it. Please, come with me. [ He takes Semimaru's hand and leads him inside the hut, then steps back and bows. ]
    If ever you need anything, you have only to summon me, Hakuga no Sammi. I shall always be ready to serve you. I take my leave of you for now.

    [ He closes the door of the hut, then exits. Sakagami enters
    Page 107

    wearing the zo mask. Her robe is folded back from her right shoulder indicating that she is deranged. She stops at the first pine.


    I am the third child of the Emperor Daigo,
    The one called Sakagami, Unruly Hair.
    Though born a princess, some deed of evil
    From my unknown past in former lives
    Causes my mind at times to act deranged.
    And in my madness I wander distant ways.
    My blueblack hair grows skywards;
    Though I stroke it, it will not lie flat.

    [ She smooths down her hair ]

    Those children over there-what are they laughing at?

    [ She looks to the right as if watching passersby. ]

    What? You find it funny that my hair stands on end? Yes,
    I suppose hair that grows upside down is funny.
    My hair is disordered, but much less than you --
    Imagine, commoners laughing at me!

        How extraordinary it is that so much before our eyes is upside down. Flower seeds buried in the ground rise up to grace the branches of a thousand trees. The moon hangs high in the heavens, but its light sinks to the bottom of countless waters.

    [ She looks up and down. ]

    I wonder which of all these should be said to go in the
    proper direction and which is upside down?
    I am a princess, yet I have fallen,
    And mingle with the ruck of common men;

    [ She proceeds to the stage while chanting. ]

    My hair, rising upward from my body,
    Turns white with the touch of stars and frost:
    The natural order or upside down?
    How amazing that both should be within me!

    [ She enters the stage. ]

    The wind combs even the willows' hair
    But neither can the wind untangle,
    Nor my hand separate this hair.

    [ She takes hold of her hair and looks at it. ]

    Shall I rip it from my head? Throw it away?

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    I lift my sleeved hands -- what is this?
    The hair-tearing dance? 9 How demeaning!

    [ She begins to dance, in a deranged manner. ]


    As I set forth from the flowery Capital
    From the flowery Capital,
    At Kamo River what were those mournful cries?
    The river ducks? Not knowing where I went
    I crossed the river Shirakawa
    And when I reached Awataguchi, I wondered,
    "Whom shall I meet now at Matsuzaka?" 11
    I thought I had yet to pass the barrier
    But soon Mount Otowa fell behind me
    How sad it was to leave the Capital!
    Pine crickets, bell crickets, grasshoppers,
    How they cried in the dusk at Yamashina!
    I begged the villagers, "Don't scold me, too!"
    I may be mad, but you should know
    My heart is a pure rushing stream:
    "When in the clear water
    At Osaka Barrier
    It sees its reflection
    The tribute horse from Mochizuki
    Will surely shy away."
    Have my wanderings brought me to the same place?
    In the running stream I see my reflection.
    Though my own face, it horrifies me:
    Hair like tangled briers crowns my head
    Eyebrows blackly twist -- yes, that is really
    Sakagami's reflection in the water.
    Water, they say, is a mirror,
    But twilight ripples distort my face.

    [ Sakagami sits at the stage assistant's position, indicating she has arrived at Mount Osaka. Semimaru, inside the hut,opens his fan and holds it in his left hand as if playing his lute. ]


    The first string and the second wildly sound
    The autumn wind brushes the pines and falls
    With broken notes; the third string and the fourth
    The fourth is myself, Semimaru,
    And four are the strings of the lute I play

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    As sudden strings of rain drive down on me
    How dreadful is this night!
    "All things in life
    In the end are alike;
    Whether in a palace or a hovel
    We cannot live forever." 14

    [ While Semimaru is speaking Sakagami comes before the shite-pillar. Semimaru inclines his head toward her as she speaks. ]


    How strange -- I hear music from this straw-thatched hut,
    The sounds of a biwa, elegantly plucked --
    To think a hovel holds such melodies!
    But why should the notes evoke this sharp nostalgia?
    With steps silent, as the rain beating on the thatch
    She stealthily approaches, stops and listens.

    [ She silently comes to stage center. Semimaru folds his fan. ]


    Who is there? Who's making that noise outside my hut?
    Hakuga no Sammi, lately you've been coming
    From time to time to visit me -- is that you?


    As I approach and listen carefully -- that's the voice of my brother, the Prince!
    It's Sakagami! I'm here!
    Semimaru, is that you inside?


    Can it be my sister, the Princess?
    Amazed, he opens the door of his hut.

    [ Taking his staff he rises and opens the door. ]


        Oh -- how wretched you look!

    [ She comes up to Semimaru as he emerges from the hut. ]


    They take each other hand in hand

    [ They place their hands on each other's shoulders and kneel. ]


    My royal brother,
    is that indeed you?


    My royal sister,
    is that indeed you?


    They speak each other's names as in one voice.
    Birds are also crying, here at Osaka,
    Barrier of meeting -- but no barrier

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    Holds back the tears that soak each other's sleeves.

    [ Both weep. During the following passage Sakagami returns to the middle of the stage and kneels. ]


    They say that sandalwood reveals its fragrance
    From the first two leaves
    15mdash;but how much closer still
    Are we who sheltered beneath a single tree! 16
    The wind rising in the orange blossoms 17
    Awakens memories we shall preserve
    We who flowered once on linking branches!
    The love between brothers is told abroad:
    Jozo and Jogen, Sori and Sokuri;
    And nearer at hand, in Japan
    The children of Emperor Ojin,
    The princes Naniwa and Uji, 19
    Who yielded the throne, each to the other:
    All these were brothers and sisters
    Bound in love, like us, like linking branches.


    But did I imagine my brother
    Would ever live in such a hovel?


    Had no music come from that straw-thatched hut
    How should I have known? But I was drawn
    By the music of those four strings,


    Drawn like the water offered to the gods


    From deep wells of love and far-reaching ties.
    The world may have reached its final phase 2O
    But the sun and moon have not dropped to the ground.
    Things are still in their accustomed place, I thought,
    But how can it be, then, that you and I
    Should cast away our royalty and live like this,
    Unable even to mingle with common men?
    A mad woman, I have come wandering now
    Far from the Capital girdled by clouds,
    To these rustic scenes, a wretched beggar,
    By the roads and forests, my only hope
    The charity of rustics and travelers.
    To think it was only yesterday you lived
    In jeweled pavilions and golden halls;
    You walked on polished floors and wore bright robes.
    In less time than it takes to wave your sleeve,

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    Today a hovel is your sleeping-place.
    Bamboo posts and bamboo fence, crudely fashioned
    Eaves and door: straw your window, straw the roof,
    And over your bed, the quilts are mats of straw:
    Pretend they are your silken sheets of old.


    My only visitors -- how rarely they come --
    Are monkeys on the peak, swinging in the trees;
    Their doleful cries soak my sleeve with tears.
    I tune my lute to the sound of the showers,
    I play for solace, but tears obscure the sounds.
    Even rain on the straw roof makes no noise.
    Through breaks in the eaves moonlight seeps in.
    But in my blindness, the moon and I are strangers.
    In this hut I cannot even hear the rain --
    How painful to contemplate life in this hut!

    [ Both weep. ]


    Now I must go; however long I stayed
    The pain of parting never would diminish.
    Farewell, Semimaru.

    [ Both rise. ]


    If sheltering under a single tree
    Were our only tie, parting would still be sad;
    How much sadder to let my sister go!
    Imagine what it means to be alone!

    [ Sakagami moves toward the shite-pillar. ]


    Truly I pity you; even the pain
    Of wandering may provide distraction,
    But remaining here -- how lonely it will be!
    Even as I speak the evening clouds have risen,
    I rise and hesitate; I stand in tears.

    [ She weeps. ]


    The evening crows call on the barrier road,
    Their hearts unsettled


    As my raven hair,
    My longing unabated, I must go.


    Barrier of Meeting, don't let her leave!


    As I pass by the grove of cedars

    [She goes to the first pine. ]


    Her voice grows distant. . .

    Page 112


    By the eaves of the straw hut. . .


    I stand hesitant.


    "Farewell," she calls to him, and he responds,
    "Please visit me as often as you can."

    [ Sakagami goes to the third pine and turns back to look at Semimaru. ]

    Her voice grows faint but still he listens,

    [ Sakagami starts to exit. Semimaru takes a few steps forward, stops and listens. His blind eyes gaze in her direction. ]

    She turns a final time to look at him.
    Weeping, weeping they have parted,
    Weeping, weeping they have parted.

    [ Sakagami exits, weeping. Semimaru also weeps. ]

    Page 113


    1. In certain Buddhist texts the rarity of meeting a Buddha is compared to the difficulty of a blind sea-turtle's chances of bumping into a log to float on. The turtle emerges to the surface only once a century and tries to clutch the log, but it has a hole and eludes his grasp; this was a simile for the difficulty of obtaining good fortune.

    2. The poem referred to is by Li Ho and is actually a description of Hsi-shih (Seishi) rather than a poem by her. The meaning of the original verses was that Seishi's fragrant locks rivaled the perfume of cloves or sandalwood; however, the dramatist here misunderstood the Chinese and interpreted it as meaning she had cut her locks and now would have to rest her head on a hard pillow of sandalwood. (See commentary by Tanaka Makoto in Yokyoku Shu, 111, 205 [Nihon Koten Zensho series].)

    3. From the poem by Ki no Tsurayuki, no. 918 in the Kokinshu.

    4. From the anonymous poem, no. 1091 in the Kokinshu.

    5. From the poem by the priest Henjo, no. 348 in the Kokinshu.

    6. There is a pivot-word embedded here: chitose no saka, the slope of a thousand years; and saka yuku tsue, the staff that brings steady prosperity.

    7. An allusion to the poem, attributed to Semimaru himself, no. 1091 in the Gosenshu. The poem, about the Barrier of Osaka, originally had a meaning something like: "This is the Barrier where people come and go exchanging farewells; for friends and strangers alike this is Meeting Barrier."

    8. Hakuga no Sammi was in fact the grandson of the Emperor Daigo; and lived from 919 to 980; but here he is demoted to the position of a rustic, in inverse proportion to Semimaru's rise in position from being a menial to being Daigo's son.

    9. The bato dance is described thus in The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon (translation by Ivan Morris): "In the Dance of the Pulled Head the dancer's hair is in disorder and he has a fierce look in his eyes; but the music is delightful."

    10. The name of the river, kamo, meant a species of duck.

    11. The name Matsuzaka contains the familiar pivot-word matsu, to wait.

    12. A poem by Ki no Tsurayuki, no. 118 in the Shuishu. The horse referred to was presented as tribute to the moon in a special ceremony
    Page 114

    held at the height of autumn on the night of the full moon. The headnote in Shuishu attributes this practice to the reign of the Emperor Daigo.

    13. An allusion to the poem by Po Chü-i, no. 463 in the Wakan Roei Shu

    14. From the poem attributed to Semimaru, no. 1851 in the Shinkokinshu

    15. An expression used proverbially to indicate that genius can be recognized even in early youth. Here used to mean that a noble person reveals his character spontaneously.

    16. Taking shelter beneath the same tree was an illustration of the concept that even casual contact in a previous existence might bring a karmic connection between people in their next incarnation. Because of some connection in a previous life Semimaru and Sakagami were born in this life as brother and sister.

    17. The fragrance of orange (tachibana) blossoms was believed to summon up remembrance of people one once knew; here the memories are those shared by brother and sister.

    18. Jozo and Jogen were siblings mentioned in the Lotus Sutra. Sori and Sokuri were the son and daughter of a Brahman king of southern India. They were abandoned by their stepmother. After their death, their father found and recognized their skeletons on the island where they had been abandoned. The story is mentioned in the Taiheiki and the Gempei Seisuiki.

    19. Sons of the Emperor Ojin. The younger, Prince Uji, had been designated by Ojin as his heir, but declined, saying the office belonged by rights to his elder brother. Prince Uji died first, and the empire went to Prince Naniwa, known posthumously as Emperor Nintoku.

    20. A familiar concept. Believers in the medieval Pure Land Buddhism were convinced that the world had reached the period of the end of the Buddhist Law (mappo). According to one method of calculation, this period began about 1000 A.D., and was to continue for another thousand years.