Tuesday, June 27, 2017

“Ground Spider” -  Special Summer Evening Noh by Torch Light

Invited by a friend recently, I had a chance to see one of the centuries-old creations of Noh drama, “Ground Spider” (Tarantula de Tierra) in Fukuoka, Kyushu. The venue was at the Across Symphony Hall which can accommodate thousands. It has no English subtitling amenity but it has an authentic Noh stage setup with a pine tree painted on the back wall.  The artificial torch lit apologetically but was unable to reproduce the mythic outdoor shrine/temple ritual ambiance. Summer should be the best season to enjoy supernatural horrors in darkness, under shadows of trees, branches and leaves, and by flickering fires in the cool wind blowing in the evening - all elements that would add intensity to the Noh drama. Alas, indoor theater was not the best of venues for the horrors and suspenses of the fifth Noh category, dealing with demons.

Ground Spider is a visually entertaining and spectacular piece of Noh repertoire similar to the Kabuki version.  Familiarly called Raiko, Yorimitsu Minamoto (918-1021) is based on a historic figure.  He was the chief of the Seiwa Genji Clan who served for the aristocratic Fujiwara Clans as guardsman, the forerunner of Samurais.  Raiko, together with his four Great Entourage Warriors (Watanabe no Tsuna, Sakata no Kintoki, Usui no Sadamitsu, Urabe no Suetake) vanquished two scary demons, l) Ground Spider at Mt. Katsuraki in Yamato, near Nara and 2) Shuten Doji, Drunkard Lad, at Mt. Oe, Tanba Country, north of Kyoto, both of which were featured in Noh plays, fifth category.  The Shuten-Doji Devil lived during the days of Rasho-Mon, committing all evil crimes in Kyoto, retreating and hiding underground near Mt. Oe, always inebriated, thus named drunkard.

The Ground Spider monster image is said to have originated from a disparaging term for the downtrodden indigenous people of Japan. So, on various levels the play is making a commentary about how Raiko may have treated the indigenous people, their anger over the treatment, and - with the killing of the spider - who the play’s writers felt would win the struggle.  Despite its fearsome look, ancient people were awed by the ground spider and revered it as God incarnate. The highlight of Ground Spider is the scene in which the ato-shite throws spider threads made of Japanese paper.  It is said that the current performance which throws a number of threads is created by the grand master of the Kongo School in the early Meiji Period. The parabolic arch of the spider threads flying in the air should greatly appeal to novice Noh spectators. I heard from my friend indirectly that  even the Noh professional who experienced Shite, that timing of throwing both in preparation and execution is breath-taking, just like counting down the seconds, with an expectation similar to a parachute opening in skydiving.

Ground spider, to me, means fearsome tarantula, a tea cup size spider, which I have seen while living in the U.S. They live in the deserts of Arizona, Texas and other southern states.  I had wanted to buy a stuffed brown specimen but never did. Those tarantulas in the U.S. don’t use a web to ensnare prey, and are harmless to humans.  By Googling I discovered the 2017 Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan wrote his first novel "Tarantula" (unofficially available in 1966). I read it for free after downloading. I was disappointed, however, there was no mention of the Spider Tarantula. He likened himself to a Tarantula setting out on his desert trip to wander the badlands of New York. It’s just interesting he wrote his one and only novel 50 years ago, reputedly hard to interpret.

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