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Richard C. Stclair
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It is hard to do anything but sing the praises of SUPERNATURAL BEINGS: FROM JAPANESE NOH PLAYS OF THE FIFTH GROUP by Chifumi Shimakazi (1910-1998) and Stephen Comee. This book is an important addition to a growing number of Japanese Noh plays in English translation. The writing is clear and forceful, the translations are powerful, accurate and lyrical, and the introductory, analytical, and appendix resources are helpful to the student, scholar and enthusiast of Noh plays.
Mrs. Shimazaki's reputation as English translator of Noh plays has been long established. Mr. Comee, a Noh actor and Shingon Buddhist, brings a wealth of practical experience to this volume.
The book is available as both paperback and handsome hardback. The text is 389 pages, with a 14-page Preface by Comee which goes into the amazing story of how this latest volume came into being, during and following the last days of Mrs. Shimazaki's long and fruitful life as translator of Noh plays.
This book is the latest in a series of Noh translations by Chifumi Shimazaki produced by the redoubtable Cornell East Asia Series of which 11 volumes have begun and are projected for completion. The CEAS has already published 4 previous voumes of Noh translations: Battle Noh (books 1 & 2, CEAS 91 and CEAS 60), of which the second goes by the title Warrior Ghost Plays from the Japanese Noh Theater; Restless Spirits from the Japanese Noh Pays of the Fourth Group (CEAS 76); and Troubled Souls from the Japanese Noh Plays of the Fourth Group (CEAS 95). All are of the highest quality.
CEAS has also published Noh translations by another noted translator, Royall Tyler: Pining Wind: A Cycle of No Plays (CEAS 17) and Granny Mountains: A Second Cycle of No Plays (CEAS 18).
The Chifumi Shimazaki Noh translations go all the way back to 1972 beginning with her volume, God Noh (published by Hinoki Shoten of Tokyo), which has been out of print (and whatever scarce copies appear on the used market sell at premium prices).
SUPERNATURAL BEINGS is an extraordinary volume for many reasons. The most immediately useful is its English translation of 8 Noh plays of the 5th group with the English text on opposing pages with the original Japanese text in romaji alliteration. The 5th group of Noh plays is the final, culminating portion of the traditional stage presentation of five consecutive plays, one from each of the five categories of play. Hence, the 5th group plays are highly dynamic and intriguing, full of intensity and vivid action.
Not only are the translations themselves powerful and lyrical, they are accompanied in a running column of side notes with elaborate stage directions as well as indications of the style of the dance and libretto declamation (sung or spoken) of the particular passage. These allow for authentic stage production of the plays in keeping with the long-standing tradition of the Noh performing schools. Further, the translators have provided extensive footnotes explaining the subtler aspects of the plays, including historical notes, explanation of Japanese words, allusions to pre-existing poems and writings, and so forth.
The plays in translation are: Kuzu, Matsuyama Tengu, Kurama Tengu, Shokun, Kumasaka, Kuruma-zo, Nue, and Adachigahara. Some of these appear in English translation for the first time.
The lengthy introduction presents an explanation of the principle of jo-ha-kyu (introduction - development - and rapid close) typical of the organization of the five types of Noh plays which total over two hundred in all. This principle, enunciated by the great Noh playwright Zeami, can also be felt in other Japanese art forms, including renga (linked poetry) and gagaku (court music).
The introduction also presents a tabulated analysis of the fifty 5th-group Noh plays (of which the 8 translations are a representative) according to the seven sub-groups. All seven sub-groups are represented in the English translations. Following the tabulated analysis is a summary of all fifty plays themselves, some longer than a page in length. That itself is a great value.
The 8 translations are prepared by a fascinating and thorough analysis of the history, legend and plot of each play as well as an explanatory list of all of the dramatis personae. Included are a brief description of scene, season, characters, costume description, and the author (if known) ahead of the translation of each play.
The Appendices present a list of the Fifth-group Noh currently in the repertories of the Five Noh Schools, and an enumeration of poems quoted in the fifty plays taken from Stephen Comee's Japanese-language unpublished text, Poetic Allusion in Noh: A Complete List of Poems Quoted in the Current Noh Repertoire. The present writer hopes Mr. Comee will publish this text in English translation in the future.
Finally, a 25-page Glossary of Technical terms rounds out the volume, a very convenient tool for the reader and student.
The Cornell East Asia Program is to be highly commended for this inspiring and scholarly volume as well as the volumes of Noh translations it has published previously. One looks forward to the appearance of subsequent volumes in this landmark series of Noh translations.