New Noh: ‘Shain’

The October issue of the Nōgaku Times features an article on Shain 『沙院』 a shinsaku-noh (new Noh play, not part of the classical canon) by actor Nagajima Tadashi (Kanze).

Shain is based on the character of Shakushain, an Ainu chifetain who led an important rebellion (Shakushain no tatakai, 1669-1672) against the Matsumae clan, the Japanese lords who occupied the Hokkaidō region at that time.

The Noh follows a rather standard structure in which a monk (waki) visiting Hokkaidō meets a local man who tells him the story of Shakushain (shite) before disappearing. In the second half of the play the shite re-enters the stage in his real form, as the spirit of Shakushain. In the interview to the Nōgaku Times, Nagajima-sensei explains how the character for the nochi-ba (second act) was built around that of the Noh Kōu (on the Chinese general Hsiang Yu). One of the highlights of the play is the ezo-nishiki fabric costume for the character of Shakushain, of which you can find pictures on Nagajima-sensei’s website.

Unfortunately not much is said about the ‘post-colonial’ resonance of the play. Obviously the Japanese invasion and subjugation of Hokkaidō has an important meaning in Japanese history, especially if seen in the perspective of Tamura, the only classical Noh play dealing with a similar theme. In Tamura the general Sakanoue no Tamuramaro (758-811) is sent by Emperor Heizei to Mt. Suzaku to contrast an Ainu invasion, whom he defeats with the help of the bodhisattva Kannon, who mercifully sends a thousand arrows on the ‘demons of the North’, killing them all. You can find a synopsis on, and perhaps also notice how they artfully avoided to mention that Tamura’s enemies were actually Ainu people.

Those interested in attending Shain can find more info on Nagajima Tadashi’s website.

2 thoughts on “New Noh: ‘Shain’

  1. Wow. This is interesting. Thanks for sharing about it.

    Whereas Tamura tells the story from the Japanese point of view (as is to be expected), I imagine that this situation of telling a story from a non-Japanese (particularly an anti-Wajin) point of view is quite unusual. From a post-colonial or pro-indigenous sort of point of view, we would want to think the play is somehow “giving the subaltern voice,” speaking to the audience of this alternate version of history, by telling it from the Ainu point of view rather than the Japanese one. But, I wonder, does it come across that way? Or does the play appropriate Shakushain and the Ainu as if they were Japanese, just like any other Japanese figure who appears in a Noh play?

    Perhaps most importantly, I guess, is the question of how it is received… If you hear anything, let us know?

    1. Thank you Travis. I have not seen the play or, rather, read the utai-bon so I don’t know. I also find it interesting that they used a Chinese reference to depict an Ainu warrior, but of course that is the peak of exoticism within the noh classical repertoire.

      At the end of the article Nakajima hints at the fact that the last words of the monk are to be understood as a requiem for the victims, which means the Ainu people, the Matsumae folks, and … the victims of the Tohoku disaster. Obviously this is very different from the triumphal ending of Tamura… how could it be otherwise!

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