Staging Madness: Nogaku vs. Kyogen

mental health 6 bannerJust before boarding my flight to Japan (this time for a two-month internship in Kumamoto prefecture – update will follow!), I would like to share another part of my Master’s thesis on mental health stigma with you. If you are new to this series of blog posts, feel free to check out part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 first before getting into this one. Part 6 is dedicated to the performance arts, nōgaku and kyōgen in particular, and how these represented “madness” in premodern Japan.

Nōgaku indicates two theater forms developed from Sarugaku during the 14th century, Nō 能 and Kyōgen 狂言. Nō is a musical performance art that presents famous tales and legends by making use of masks and a limited amount of props on stage. performances are full of symbolism and often feature supernatural elements. One leitmotiv in several Nō pieces is monogurui 物狂[1], a theatrical element representing “madness”. It can be said that Nō plays of the monogurui type are constructed around a central concept of “possession” as a sacred phenomenon[2]. Monogurui has multiple meanings: it does “not only indicate the condition in which one loses mental equilibrium, but also refers to (a) a person in such a condition or (b) such a display of madness in a performance[3]”.


a Nō performance –

A state of monogurui is caused by a psychological crisis and is in many cases expressed in the form of a “mad dance”. In this instant of “madness”, the protagonist, in almost all plays of monogurui Nō a woman, reveals her suppressed feelings. According to Zeami, “madwomen” (kyōjo 狂女) were the ideal material for an interesting play, because “women are mysterious beings by nature”[4]. Two triggers of monogurui can be identified: spirit possession (tsukimono 憑物), or excessive affection because of the loss of a loved one (omoi 思ひ)[5].  From an objective point of view, the “madwoman” as represented in Nō, tormented by a spirit or by immense grief, has a reason to act insane. The “mad dance”, the climax of monogurui, functions here as a visual representation of mental suffering and as a dramatic tool to evoke sympathy from the audience[6]. This indicates not only a high level of spirituality, but also a strong influence of Buddhism and Shintoism.

For example, in Lady Aoi (Aoi no Ue 葵上), a play loosely based on the possession scene in The Tale of Genji as described in a previous post, the evil spirit that possesses Lady Rokujō and haunts Aoi, is exorcised by sacred prayers. After her soul has been cleansed of jealousy, Lady Rokujō is capable of reaching enlightenment. In the pictures below, the anger of Lady Rokujō is expressed through her transformation into a demon. Although the play is named afer her, Lady Aoi never appears on stage: she is represented by an empty kimono. Hence, the focus is on the possessed Lady Rokujō throughout the play.

Other examples of Nō plays featuring monogurui are Mii-dera Temple三井寺, Hanjo 班女, Hyakuman The Dancer (Hyakuman 百万), The River of Cherry Blossoms (Sakuragawa 桜川), The Reed Cutter (Ashikari蘆刈), Sumidagawa River隅田川, Flower Basket (Hanagatami花筐), and Pining Wind (Matsukaze 松風) [7] . Monogurui in Nō resembles in many aspects the mono no ke concept from the Heian period. Both target “weak” women, are caused by psychological instability, are dramatic techniques to enable the protagonist to freely express their otherwise suppressed feelings, and bear a strong connection with religion and spirituality. Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that this embellished idea of “madness” is one dominantly perceived on stage or in literature; “during the Middle Ages, such behavior would certainly have been a frightful sight in real life[8]”.


Sumidagawa 隅田川 is a well-known example of a “madwoman’s play” – Wikiwand

The second theatrical form of Nōgaku, Kyōgen, does not use masks nor music. The plays are comical sketches, traditionally staged between Nō plays. As much as Nō is connected with spirituality, Kyōgen is intrinsically linked with “earthiness”, with its performance in vulgar language and satirical representation of daily events in common people’s life. Although the expression of “madness” is not as obvious as in Nō, there are multiple plays in which the characters act unconventionally, or are called “crazy” by others. “Madness” in Kyōgen is irrational; no clear incentive is given. Its absurdity, “playful lunacy [9]” in a sense, is staged not to evoke compassion, but laughter.

The representation of “madness” in Kyōgen appears to be closer to mental disorders in real life[10], an impression supported by the fact that the word kyōgen actually means “mad words”. Another significant observation is that the word monogurui 物狂 designates the Japanese reading for 狂 (kuru-i), while kyōgen狂言prescribes the Sino-Japanese pronunciation for the same character狂 (kyō). Moreover, when “madness” is directly expressed in a Kyōgen play, the word bukkyō 物狂 is mostly used, which is the Sino-Japanese reading for 物狂. For example:

  • なう、そなたのなりは物狂や、何事ぞいなう。(Nau, sonata no nari ha bukkyō ya, nanigoto zo inau.) From Mr. Dumbtarō (Dontarō 鈍太郎). translation: “Come now, you look like crazy, how scandalous!”
  • のう、物狂物狂や、何とわらわが名などが付けらるるものじゃ。(Nō, bukkyō ya bukkyō ya, nani to warawaga mei nado tsukeraruru mono ja.) Translation: “This is madness, it’s madness, what for a name am I getting now” From Bikusada Gets Named (Bikusada 比丘貞)
  • 「なうなうおぢやれ,物いはう」「ああ物狂や」(“nau nau odjare, mono ihau” “aa bukkyō ya”) Translation: “Here here, come on in, let us talk!” “You’re insane!” From The Second-Class Master Blindman and the MonkeySaru Zatō 猿座頭). [11]

The speaker in this play directly criticizes the appearance or action of the other or the “crazy” situation they are in, a nuance completely absent in Nō theater. Both forms of Nōgaku have a different interpretation of “madness”, which can be observed in the different terminology they utilize. Although spelled the same, when read Monogurui, it is used in the sacred, ritual and highly stylized context of Nō, while the pronunciation bukkyō is associated with Kyōgen, the theater form strongly connected with the ordinariness and vulgarity of everyday life [12]. A similar distinction between the two readings of bukkyō/monogurui can also be found back in other text dating back to roughly the same time Nōgaku was in vogue. While mongurui appeared almost exclusively on stage and in a ritual or religious context, bukkyō is a common description of “madness” in everyday life, used to express the speaker’s feelings of annoyance and vexation towards the aberrant behavior of someone else [13].


Foreword to the Sand and Pebbles – Wikimedia Commons

For example, in the work Sand and Pebbles (Shasekishū 沙石集, 1283), “mad” people are referred to as bukkyō no mono 物狂の者. Sand and Pebbles is a collection of Buddhist parables by Mujū Ichien無住一圓, “small talk reflecting the lifestyle and feelings of the general populace in the far Eastern region at that time[14]”. The influence of Kyōgen is visible in the plain and popular reciting style as well as in the humorous notes. The Rise and Decline of the Minamoto and Taira Clans (Genpei Jōsuiki 源平盛衰記, 14th Century), an extended version of The Tale of the Heike, uses bukkyō as to indicate aberrant behavior (bukkyō no hito ni te,…物狂の人にて、…[15]). A last example is from the Kenmu Code (Kenmu Shikimoku建武式目). One article promulgating “matters that should be economized” argues that wearing luxurious and flashy clothes should be strictly regulated. Such inappropriate attire is called “extreme madness” (sukoburu bukkyō 頗る物狂) and thus heavily criticized[16].


Kyogen (1)

Manzo Nomura, a famous Kyogen actor – Asia Society

One scholar mentions that during the Japanese middle ages, the difference between sane and insane was only a matter of the cultural value attached to these concepts. Nevertheless, he warns, what was once tolerated in ancient society was now being identified as “madness”[17]. In short, there existed different interpretations of “madness”, and two of these interpretations (one highly stylized as an art form, one criticized and laughed at in daily life) were acted out on stage in Nō and Kyōgen.

Footnotes & References

[1] Zeami expressed in his theoretical work The Flowering Spirit (Fūshikaden風姿花伝) his preference for this type of Nō: “it is the most fascinating form of Sarugaku theater.” Matsuo, Kōichi 松尾恒一. From Ritual to Art. Mania, Possession and Jest. 儀礼から芸能へ. 狂騒・憑依・道化 (girei kara geinō he. kyōsō・hyōi・dōke) Kadokawa Series 54. Tokyo: Kadokawa Gakugei Publishing, 2011, p. 110. [2] Oda, Susumu 小田晋. Japanese Sources on Madness日本の狂気誌 (Nihon no kyōkishi). Tokyo: Kodansha, 1998, p. 130. [3] Savas, Minae. “Feminine Madness in The Japanese Noh Theatre.” Ohio State University, 2008, p. 55. [4] Sugisawa, Haruko 杉澤陽子. “A Study of ‘Monogurui Noh’” 能の物狂いについての研究 (Nō no monogurui ni tsuite no kenkyū) in The Bulletin of the International Society for Harmonization of Cultures & Civilizations融合文化研究 (Yūgō bunka kenkyū) 7 (June 2006): 66–81, p. 72. [5] Savas, Feminine Madness, p. 53. [6] Hosokawa, Ryōichi 細川涼一. The Japanese Middle Ages of Deviance – Madness, Perversity and the Demon World 逸脱の日本中世―狂気・倒錯・魔の世界 (Itsudatsu no nihon chūsei – kyōki・tōsaku・ma no sekai) Tokyo: JICC Press, 1993, p. 21. [7] “Monogurui Nō” 物狂い能 in Digital Daijisen『デジタル大辞泉』Tokyo: Shogakukan, 2012. and “Noh Plays DATABASE”. [8] Matsuo, From Ritual to Art, p. 112. [9] “Asobi kuruu” 遊び狂う. Kitagawa, Tadahiko 北川忠彦. “Self-oblivion in Kyōgen”狂言の忘我性 (Kyōgen no bōgasei) in Tenri University Japanese Literature Research Room天理大学国文学研究室 (Tenri daigaku kokubungaku kenkyūshitsu), 20 (March 1976): 63–75, p. 71. [10] Ibid., p. 72. [11] Directly retrieved from a collection of kyōgen plays, original text. Translation by me. [12] Oda, Japanese Sources on Madness, p.132-134. [13] Yokoi, Kiyoshi 横井清. “A Memorandum of The Matter of Madness” 狂気のこと覚え書き (Kyōki no koto oboegaki), Tradition and Modernity 伝統と現代 (Dentō to gendai) 44, 1977. [14] “Shasekishū” 沙石集 in Encyclopedia Nipponica 日本大百科全書(ニッポニカ) (Nihon daihyakka zensho (nipponika)). Tokyo: Shogakukan, 1994. [15] The full sentence is物狂の人にて、悪き様にや御目に懸候はんずらん (bukkyō no hito ni te, waruki yō ni ya ome ni ken sōrohan zuran), translated as “No doubt it would be mad of me to ask a pardon for myself, but I see nothing wrong with asking one for you.” Tyler, Royall. The tale of the Heike, 2012, online version chapter 10. [16] Hosokawa, Middle Ages of Deviance, p. 19. [17] Ibid., p. 14.


Old Stories of Madness

20160623_193717.jpgNext up in our “Mental Health in Japan” series is a limited selection of stories on “madness” as recorded in Japan’s classic literature of the Heian period (794-1185), with a special focus on terminology. I have already written several posts on Heian literature, partly because it was by reading these books that I became fascinated with Japanese culture. I am a huge fan of Sei Shonagon (I recommend her Pillow Book to everyone who wants to explore court life in Japan around the year 1000) and, of course, I should mention Murasaki Shikibu, creator of Japan’s biggest playboy ever. Both female writers are featured in this post. If you’re interested in the topic of “madness”, you should also check out part one, two and three of my “Mental Health” series.

Story no. 1: The Great Mirror and Mad Emperors

The Great Mirror (Ōkagami大鏡), a historical account written during the latter half of the Heian period, briefly mentions the “madness” of emperor Reizei (950-1011). Ōe Masafusa (1041-1111) describes in his diary (Gōki江記) the eccentric demeanor of the emperor at a young age: One day, he kicked a football for a whole day without minding his bleeding feet; when a fire broke out in the palace, he was singing songs with a loud voice while fleeing; in response to his father’s letter, he once sent a drawing of a phallus and so on[1]. Reizei’s fits of insanity are explained in The Great Mirror as “an affliction attributed to the angry spirits of his half-brother and disappointed rival, Murakami’s oldest son, and of the mother and grandfather of the unsuccessful Prince, all of whom had died when Reizei was about three years old[2]”. His condition is the result of a curse (tatari祟) caused by the revengeful spirits (onryō怨霊) of the relatives he had allegedly robbed from their imperial title, upon which they had died out of despair[3]. Once acceded to the throne, Reizei was forced to abdicate due to his mental instability only two years later. The curse also had repercussions for the mental health of his offspring, among whom Reizei’s son emperor Kazan is discussed in The Great Mirror as well. Another example is Reizei’s daughter Sonshi. It was rumored that she left the palace and became a nun because of a hereditary mental illness. [4].

Reizei_kyoto tomb.jpg

Emperor Reizei’s tomb in Kyoto.

Reizei’s mental disorder is referred to as 御物の怪 (o-mono no ke of which o is a honorific prefix) several times throughout The Great Mirror, a term of which the meaning is linked to religion and spirituality. Another term that is used at a certain point in the narrative, is kurui (狂ひ), which has a more negative connotation. Kurui appears in a dialogue between Minamoto no Toshikata, Minister of Popular Affairs, and the priest Fujiwara no Michinaga. Minamoto is sharing some amusing anecdotes about the eccentric behavior of emperor Kazan with Fujiwara, and attributes his mental disorder directly to his “deficient character from birth”. He adds that “Kazan’s craziness (kurui) is even more difficult to handle than his father’s, emperor Reizei”, after which they both burst out in laughter[5].


Emperor Kazan, Reizei’s son.

Unlike The Story of Splendor (Eiga Monogatari 栄花物語), in which a metaphorical approach is adopted, The Great Mirror criticizes the mental condition of emperor Reizei and his son Kazan directly[6]. Moreover, it is suggested that they bear the responsibility for their disorder themselves, despite the fact that the pathogenesis is otherwise stated as mono no ke throughout the work. Hence, The Great Mirror further comments that Emperor Kazan was said to be “looking great on the outside, but lacking on the inside[7]”, while emphasizing the latter[8]. From the context in which kurui appears, we can deduce that the two terms used to describe a mental disorder here have different connotations. Whereas mono no ke has a spiritual background and a rather positive nuance, kurui appears to be a means to enhance criticism or mockery towards the possessors of such a mental condition.

Another suggestion is that Reizei was only slightly eccentric, and that the abnormality of his behavior was grossly exaggerated by the Fujiwara clan. As a result of these rumors, Reizei as well as Kazan were forced to abdicate at a young age[9]. Even if the assumed mental disorder of both emperors would be part of  a political set-up, the criticism and mockery, or the fact that badmouthing about the opponent’s mental condition was an efficient way to eliminate them, still shows that the ancient society in Japan was, to a certain extent, prone to stigmatization against people afflicted with a mental disorder.

References: [1] Yawata, Kazuo八幡和郎. Biographies of Successive Generations of Emperors: “National History” You Want to Know as a Japanese歴代天皇列伝: 日本人なら知っておきたい「国家の歴史」(Rekidai tennō retsuden: nihonjin nara shitteokitai “kokka no rekishi”). Tokyo: PHP Research Institute, 2008, p. 895. [2] McCullough, Helen Craig, Tamenari Fujiwara, and Yoshinobu Fujiwara. Ōkagami, the Great Mirror: Fujiwara Michinaga (966-1027) and His Times : A Study and Translation, 1980, p. 346. [3] “Emperor Reizei” 冷泉天皇 (Reizei tennō) in Asahi Encyclopedia of Historical Figures in Japan 朝日日本歴史人物事典 (Asahi nihon rekishi jinbutsu jiten) Tokyo: Asahi Shimbun Printing, 1994. [4] Groner, Paul. Ryōgen and Mount Hiei: Japanese Tendai in the Tenth Century. Studies in East Asian Buddhism 15. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2002, p. 266. [5] For original text and translation in modern Japanese see appendix 3. [6] Satō, Asano佐藤あさの. “Emperor Reizei in The Great Mirror”『大鏡』冷泉天皇 (“Ōkagami” Reizei tennō) summary graduation thesis, Hokkaido university of Education, Association for National language and literature, Sapporo National Language Research, 17 (2012): 103. [7] Original text: その帝をば内劣りの外めでたとぞ、世の人申し. [8] Tsuji, Kazuyoshi辻和良. “The Appearance of Kazan: Narrative in The Great Mirror”花山の姿 : 大鏡の<カタル>方法 (Kazan no sugata: Ōkagami no ‘kataru’ hōhō) Journal of Nagoya Women’s University, Humanities and Social Sciences, 36 (1990): 304–297, p. 303. [9] Hattori, Toshiyoshi服部敏良. Research Tidbits on the History Medicine in Japan日本医学史研究余話 (Nihon igakushi kenkyū yowa) Kagakushoin, 1981, p. 299.

Story no. 2: The Pillow Book and  Mono no Ke


Writer Sei Shonagon

Mono no ke is a returning concept in Heian literature, represented in The Diary of Lady Murasaki, The Tale of Genji and The Pillow Book, all works written by women. It originated in 8th century China and became a popular term among the Japanese aristocracy during the 9th century. Mono no ke is composed out of the characters物 (mono, meaning “thing”, a substitute out of superstition for writing or saying the word “demon”鬼) and ke 怪, related to気 (spirit) and literally means “the spirit of an evil ghost[10]. It refers to the curse cast either by the ghost of a deceased person or by the vengeful spirit of a living creature. Such a curse took concrete shape in physical or mental illness. Sei Shonagon records in her diary The Pillow Book (Makura no Sōshi枕草子, 1002) under “hateful things” the following item:

Someone has suddenly fallen ill and one summons the exorcist. Since he is not at home, one has to send messengers to look for him. After one has had a long, fretful wait, the exorcist finally arrives, and with a sigh of relief one asks him to start his incantations. But perhaps he has been exorcizing too many evil spirits [=mono no ke] recently; for hardly has he installed himself and begun praying when his voice becomes drowsy. Oh, how hateful![11]

Doctors in the Heian period were called genza 験者, practitioners of esoteric Buddhism or folklore Shintoism, who treated illnesses by exorcizing the evil spirits causing the disease. Shirane explains: “The aim of the exorcist was to transfer the evil spirit from the afflicted person to the medium, usually a young girl or a woman, and to force it to declare itself. The exorcist used various spells and incantations to make the Guardian Demon of Buddhism take possession of the medium. When he was successful, the medium would tremble, scream, have convulsions, faint or behave as if in hypnotic trance. The spirit would then declare itself through her mouth. The final step was to drive the spirit out of the medium[12]“.

Once again, diseases are set against a religious and spiritual background. As the doctor in Sei Shonagon’s story is exhausted from overworking, it appears that sudden attacks of mono no ke were very common at that time. One believed that the most effective way to treat illness was to recite incantations. A failed exorcist session is covered in The Pillow Book as a “depressing thing”.

With a look of complete self-confidence on his face an exorcist prepares to expel an evil spirit [=mono no ke] from his patient. Handing his mace, rosary, and other paraphernalia to the medium who is assisting him, he begins to recite his spells in the special shrill tone that he forces from his throat on such occasions. For all the exorcist’s efforts, the spirit gives no sign of leaving, and the Guardian Demon fails to take possession of the medium. The relations and friends of the patient, who are gathered in the room praying, find this rather unfortunate. After he recited his incantations for the length of an entire watch [= two hours], the exorcist is worn out. (…) “Well, well, it hasn’t worked!” [13]

References[10] Takeguchi, Ryūsuke竹口竜介. “About the Genesis and Social Conditions of Mono no Ke during the Heian Period” 平安時代における物怪発生と社会状況について (Heian jidai ni okeru mono no ke hassei to shakai jōkyō nit tsuite) Journal of Ryūkoku University Graduate School for Literature Research 龍谷大学大学院文学研究科紀要 (Ryūkoku daigakuin bungaku kenkyūka kiyō), 27 (Dec 2005): 328-334, p. 330. [11] Shirane, Haruo, ed. Traditional Japanese Literature: An Anthology, Beginnings to 1600. Abridged ed. Translations from the Asian Classics. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012, p. 151.[12] Original footnote in ibid., p. 149. [13] Ibid., p. 149.

Story no. 3: The Tale of Genji and jealous spirits

In order to nuance our definition of mono no ke, it is necessary to look into its use in The Tale of Genji (Genji Monogatari 源氏物語, early 11th century). The fact that this term appears 51 times indicates its role as a key feature throughout the work. Writer Murasaki Shikibu attributes 18 personae with a spiritual possession, among which the story of Genji’s wife, Aoi, and the spirit of his mistress, the Rokujō lady, is perhaps the most representative.

At Sanjō, Genji’s wife seemed to be in the grip of a malign spirit [mono no ke]. It was no time for nocturnal wanderings. (…) Several malign spirits were transferred to the medium and identified themselves, but there was one which quite refused to move. Though it did not cause great pain, it refused to leave her for so much as an instant. There was something very sinister about a spirit that eluded the powers of the most skilled exorcists. The Sanjō people went over the list of Genji’s ladies one by one. Among them all, it came to be whispered, only the Rokujō lady and the lady at Nijō seemed to have been singled out for special attentions, and no doubt they were jealous. The exorcists were asked about the possibility, but they gave no very informative answers.[14]

aoi rokujo.png

Aoi and Genji, surrounded by anxious court ladies.

Aoi passes away due to an illness caused by the jealous spirit of the Rokujō lady, who is unaware of her own soul’s wanderings. Apart from Aoi’s suffering, Shikibu also emphasizes the mixed feelings of the Rokujō lady, unable to suppress her jealousy and overcome with self-loathing. In this sense, both ladies are victimized by the “madness” mono no ke generates. Other characters described as haunted by an evil spirit, nearly all of them female, are driven mad by love-related conflicts.


“Aoi no Ue” in Illustrated Book of Monsters (怪物絵本, kaibutsu ehon 1881)

It is clear that the Tale of Genji does not strive to render a realistic image of mental disorders. Shikibu employs mono no ke as a metaphorical tool to liberate women from social restrictions and empower them to express their suppressed feelings. As Bargen argues, “spirit possession and exorcism are understood, on the one hand, as a dramatic, subversive response to social injustice and the psychological repression of women and, on the other, as the attempt of controlling groups to pacify female frustration and rage[15]”. The Tale of Genji already enjoyed great popularity in the Heian period. It should, therefore, not surprise that its influence attributed to the establishment of mono no ke as a dramatic concept in the literature and arts of later periods.

References[14] Murasaki Shikibu and Edward G. Seidensticker, translator. The Tale of Genji. eBooks@Adelaide, chapter 9 “Heartvine”. [15] Bargen, Doris G. “Spirit Possession in The Context of Dramatic Expressions of Gender Conflict: The Aoi Episode of The Genji Monogatari.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 48, no. 1 (June 1988): 95–130, p. 96.

Next post in this series: Mad Monks & Medieval Medicine