Noh TriviaQuestion and Answer

Question123 Was Natsume Soseki a Noh lover?


“I am a Cat” (Wagahai wa neko de aru) is a masterpiece of novelist Natsume Sōseki. In one scene, the main character, The Cat, discusses the habit of his master, Mr. Sneaze (Kushami Sensei in the original Japanese), of loudly chanting Noh lyrics in the lavatory and then not caring about being known as “The Water-Closet Maestro.” The Cat is scathing about the way his master laughs about repeatedly misreading a verse of “Yuya.” In “Kusamakura,” the lead character attempts to liken a trip he makes to Noh plays. There are also several scenes with descriptions of particular Noh plays, including “Shichi-ki-ochi,” “Sumida-gawa” and “Takasago.”

Sōseki became familiar with plays of the Hōshō school while working at Fifth High School in Kumamoto, where they were frequently chanted by the teachers. The “Water-Closet Maestro” scene in “I Am a Cat” is based on the novelist’s own experiences at this time. Later, after a break for higher education in the UK, he started taking lessons in Noh chanting from Hōshō Arata, head of the Shimogakari Hōshō school for supporting actors, following an introduction from poet Takahama Kyoshi. According to Sōseki’s wife, Kyōko, the writer enjoyed Noh chanting and often did it by himself. He also sometimes joined voluntary training sessions.

Sōseki’s chanting received mixed reviews from those who knew him. Terada Torahiko recalled, “When I told him he was chanting by rolling his tongue, he described this as hurtful thing to say and never forgot my comment.” Nogami Toyoichirō said, “I cannot say he was good at it, but neither was he poor at it; he was unique in his own way.” Nogami Yaeko noted, “I cannot give him a pass mark because his chants were saccharine and drawling, like a goat’s bleating.” Abe Yoshishige claimed, “He had a facility for melody but was also fearless and free from the rules for chanting.” His instructor Hōshō Arata said, “Although he was a person of integrity and strict morals, it was interesting that his chanting was very amorous.”

The essay “The New Year Day” (Ganjitsu) in “Spring Miscellany” (Eijitsu Shōhin) includes an episode in which Sōseki is asked to chant to a tabor played by Takahama Kyoshi. He writes of his excitement at being accompanied by the tabor for the first time.

These episodes reveal the familiarity of Noh to well-educated people in the Meiji period.

* The above illustration shows a small tabor (kotsuzumi). It is believed, however, that in “Spring Miscellany” Takahama Kyoshi brings in a large tabor (ōtsuzumi): “... when the hand drum (tsuzumi) came, a small stove was brought in from the kitchen and the charcoal fire started to heat the skin of the tabor (tsuzumi).” See Trivia No. 70 for why this description is thought to be about a large tabor.

(August. 15, 2013)

illustration : Hiroko Sakaki

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