Power Beneath the Surface

The Aesthetic Veil in Motokiyo and Mishima’s Yuya 

Themes in Motokiyo and Mishima’s Yuya revolve around a shallow relationship, held together by each author’s nuanced interpretation of giri (obligations to an authoritative power) and ninjo (sense of self and personal feeling.) When the author’s ideal balance between these concepts is attained in the relationship, his truest sense of beauty is revealed. Yuya, the central character in each, is thus a woman veiled in the aesthetic ideals of her respective author. This figurative mask is, in Motokiyo’s original Noh, thoroughly oppressive, whereas in Mishima’s modern Kabuki it is wholly empowering.

At the start of each author’s play, Munemori is villainized as a brash and unlikeable lord who wants for nothing and detains Yuya for trivial pleasure. Yuya’s character is thus painted in a sympathetic light; the audience is prompted to both commiserate with her desire to visit her mother’s sickbed and to laud her strong conviction in duty to her master. While this theme remains constant in Motokiyo’s Noh, however, it masterfully erodes in Mishima’s Kabuki. Mishima keeps several aspects of Motokiyo’s original piece in tact—the reading of a letter from Yuya’s sick mother, Munemori’s insistence to go cherry blossom viewing, the beauty of Yuya’s sadness—yet his use of each plot device results in a quite a different effect. In place of an exemplary wife one finds in Mishima’s rendition a woman immersed in thick layers of deception.

The letter scene in each rendition reveals the heart of the authors’ opposing aesthetic ideals. “A letter from home? It does not need my personal attention. Read it aloud!” (40). This line, delivered by Motokiyo’s Munemori, clearly delineates the boundaries separating giri and ninjo for Yuya; in saying this, the audience recognizes that Yuya is tied to him by duty and feelings for her mother are therefore personal and considered of lesser importance. In her letter, Yuya’s mother likens herself to a melancholy warbler unable to meet the coming of spring and writes with the fading imagery of decaying blossoms and a waning autumn moon. Munemori’s cool reaction to this sad imagery once again solidifies the power structure, “I admit your mother’s illness is a matter for my sympathy, but how could you deny to me your company this one flower season?” (43). Saddened by the severity of her mother’s impending demise, Yuya is compelled to pray before Kwannon, but not at the cost of her duties—when Munemori calls for her, she obliges without hesitation, and without any hint of ulterior motive. Yuya’s responsibility to herself and her mother are thus eclipsed by requisite duties to her master, veiled behind Motokiyo’s ideal of beautiful subservience.

Mishima uses transient imagery in the letter similar to that of the original play—the sad call of a nightingale, dwindling icicles, a darkening spring—yet its purpose seeks an entirely different gain. At this point in the play, the audience is still not aware of Yuya’s calculating nature. Munemori, however, has been cognizant of Yuya’s farce prior to the raising of the curtain. It can be argued then that he in fact never intended to bring Yuya along to view his park in full bloom. It is instead far more probable that he fully invented the situation knowing all-too-well that Yuya would resist him with a splendid game of deception. Hence, his response to Yuya’s letter reading, “I am listening sympathetically” (231), again mirroring the original play, is wholly ironic—he is merely playing at sentiment. And later, when the alleged truth is settled, Munemori reveals his supreme delight: “Well, now I wonder if everyone could please leave? I would like to take some time to relish the truth of this affair” (238). His desire to have Yuya read the letter aloud allows him both to savor the power that he holds over her and to delight in the magnificent power she holds over him. It is a game through which they attain mutual satisfaction and effectively strengthen their superficial bond.

Motokiyo’s Noh is unconcerned with personal gratification. His play embodies in Yuya the feminine ideals of pre-modern Japan in order to illustrate the simple harmony between giri and ninjo. At first the stubborn selfishness to which Munemori clings seems to impress upon Yuya an unreasonable demand, and to push the rightful balance between giri and ninjo into disarray. So sings the chorus, “Alas! Unreason is the way of man, and never can it be enough lamented” (47-8). Still, she pours wine for her Lord and dances with obedient elegance beneath the radiant blossoms. In the end, however, Yuya is rewarded for her unwavering commitment to her duties when Munemori finally gives her leave to depart the festivities. Yuya’s sadness is lifted, yet only momentarily, for she soon feels nothing but deep regret for absolving herself of wifely duty to engage in personal affairs. “To Northern Koshi lies their way, to the Eastland lies hers, yet deep regret she feels!” (51). This flip of emotions not only paints Yuya as the ideal, passive mistress, but softens the unreasonable nature of her Lord’s previous demand to stay by his side. The play thus conveys to the audience the proper workings of acceptable behavior under the social laws of giri and ninjo, an ideal which in pre-modern Japan rendered women utterly powerless.

In stark contrast to Motokiyo’s pre-modern ideals, Mishima presents a corrupt power struggle in which giri is manipulated for the sake of ninjo. His characters are removed from the normal constructs of socially acceptable behavior, acting instead in accordance with their own will, the satisfaction of which can only be obtained through their powers of deception. In their game, however, neither player outsteps the bounds of obligation, and are thus rewarded in turn. Munemori satiates his lust for beauty by allowing Yuya to perform her lies, hence Yuya holds power in her proclivity to construct and brilliantly enact fabricated stories. This continuous cycle of giri exploitation keeps alive their surface level relationship; both find satisfaction through their psychological game. The architectonics of Mishima’s aesthetic truths thus conspire to reach a single, superficial goal—the satiation of want for pleasure through the beauty of manipulation.

Neither Mishima nor Motokiyo indicate that the relationship between Yuya and Munemori is one of genuine affection. It is clear that in both plays their bond is made strong by a steadfastness in responsibility, and that Yuya’s beauty is made perfect through it. Yuya in the Noh is given leave to attend to her ill mother because of her exemplary obedience. Her feelings of regret at accepting this leave, however, indicate her total powerlessness. Because she relinquishes herself to her duties, Yuya’s beauty, in Motokiyo’s ideal, is made whole. The Kabuki’s Yuya, on the other hand, uses her responsibility to heighten her persuasiveness, and remains cognizant of her limits when dealing with Munemori. Her deliberate calculations hence allow her to retain the patronage and superficial power as she desires. Mishima’s aesthetic ideal therefore empowers Yuya, whereas Motokiyo’s merely subjugate her.


© 2016 Devon Lois Duncan. All rights reserved.

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