Tsunemasa, Retold by Kenneth Lawrence with Artwork by Kumiko Lawrence

Tsunemasa, Attributed to Zeami Motokiyo / Japanese Noh. Retold by Kenneth E. Lawrence, translated by Edward Kai Lawrence. Art by Kumiko Lawrence

Artwork by Kumiko Lawrence
Artwork by Kumiko Lawrence

Attributed to Zeami Motokiyo | Japanese Noh
Retold by Kenneth E. Lawrence
Translated by Edward Kai Lawrence
Art by Kumiko Lawrence

When strangers take shelter under the same tree, they say, or draw water from the same river, it reveals a bond, a bond formed in their former lives. Surely the bond formed between the abbot and Tsunemasa was stronger still.

A man comes, a high-ranking priest of the imperial temple Ninnaji. He carries before him a musical instrument, a priceless biwa lute known as Seizan.

“The biwa known as Seizan,” he says, “an offering most wonderful for the deceased warrior Tsunemasa. During his childhood, Tsunemasa had been an acolyte of Abbot Kakusho, who showed him great favor. Because Tsunemasa was an accomplished musician, the abbot entrusted him with this lute. But now Tsunemasa’s clan, the Heike, have been defeated, and Tsunemasa slain in battle in the west.

“I have been bid by His Reverence the abbot to set this biwa before the altar and order musicians to play for the repose of Tsunemasa’s spirit.” The priest kneels before the altar.

At the Ninnaji imperial residence they chant throughout the night. “May Tsunemasa attain enlightenment” they pray.
Pipes and strings sound, joining their prayer, guiding all, day and night, through the gate of Holy Law to the Universal Way.

But…strange! Well into the night, a voice whispers:

“Wind blowing through autumn trees,
rain from a clear sky;
moonlight on the sands,
a summer night white with frost.”

The guttering candle’s dim flicker lights a form, scarcely visible. “The frost lies, resting,” it says, “but I cannot. I rise, a shadow from the grass, brief as morning dew.”

The priest is stunned. “Who… are you?” he asks.

“I am the spirit of Tsunemasa. Deeply grateful for the mass performed on my behalf, I have come.”

Tsunemasa, inconstant and transient, a spirit without substance, returned from warrior hell to this fleeting world, revealing his name. The voice rings clear, but as the priest watches, the form fades once more, now seen, now gone. Only the voice, faint, remains. “Ah, so pitiful!” the spirit cries. “I am one apart from this life. But in a dream vision I have appeared in this place, that same place of joys past.

“Through water pipes of Chinese bamboo flows water ever-changing, but in this palace my joy was pure and lasting. But that same joy, my love of music, has become my attachment, and will not let my spirit rest.”

Invisible to the eye, but bound by blind attachment, the spirit of Tsunemasa speaks: “When I was young, I attended the Emperor at his palace and was presented to many. For this kindness I am forever indebted. And now, as an offering, he has had his biwa Seizan placed upon the altar. While in earthly life, with his permission I would play on its four strings constantly.

“Even now those strings draw me on, luring my heart as before. The sound of the plectrum, this exquisite sound must surely be the voice of Benzaiten, Goddess of Fortune, Eloquence, and Music, the sound of her pledge to save the souls of men.”

“Sensitive to the shifting beauties of nature, I filled my days with poetry and music, yearning for spring and autumn, dew on the grass in the pines’ shade, foam on the water, the fragile things of this life. A blossoming flower never failed to touch my heart.”

The spirit draws near, and in the light of the candle, though still unseen, on the offered biwa he plays.

Artwork by Kumiko Lawrence
Artwork by Kumiko Lawrence

But…a wonder! Cloudless skies become overcast, and of a sudden, the sound of falling rain! The beating of the rain on trees and grass, the music of the season. And…look there, on the edge of that cloud is the moon, a range of hills by its side. Through the hills’ pines the wind blows, rustling their boughs. So timely a visit.

The thicker strings’ loud clamor is a rain shower beating down; the finer strings murmur the whisperings of love. The upper strings an autumn wind blustering through pines; the lower strings cry out, a caged crane calling out for her child. Roosters announce the break of day, but oh, today, please be kind. Do not crow to end this night’s music!

Music moves the autumn clouds. Phoenixes, too, drawn by the music, descend. Wing to wing they soar and dance, so profound the depth of feeling stirred by the musical modes. Their voices are silken sleeves dancing. They beckon, turn and twirl, then turn back once more, recalling days now past.

The spirit of Tsunemasa weeps. “This night’s music, so beautiful! And that night’s music, how I miss it! On this precious occasion I have returned, my soul finding solace in the music of the night. But even so, fierce anger returns, rising in me as I’m drawn once again back to the constant battle of Warrior Hell.”

“My form once more becomes visible. Oh, the shame! Your candle,” the spirit cries, “please put it out! Flames of rage rain down on my body. My blade, wounding others, pierces my flesh. Crimson-crested waves blaze in fury as, in agony, I burn.

“Let no one see me! I must extinguish that flame!”

A foolish summer fly, to put out a flame, rushes into it. A gust of wind and all is darkness. The spirit is gone. ♦

Kenneth E. Lawrence is a writer and musician living in Seattle. He and his wife, artist Kumiko Lawrence, are Soju Project (http://www.sojukai.com/), a performance group focusing on tales from legends and epics of the world

From Parabola Volume 42, No. 2, “Happiness,” Summer 2017. This issue is available to purchase here. If you have enjoyed this piece, consider subscribing.


By Kenneth E. Lawrence

Kenneth E. Lawrence is a writer and musician living in Seattle. He and his wife, artist Kumiko Lawrence, are Soju Project (http://www.sojukai.com/), a performance group focusing on tales from legends and epics of the world