Poetry in Pattern
In the empty space of the Noh stage, a square space defined only by wooden pillars at each corner and a background painting of a grand pine tree, the Noh costume assumes a vital role in defining characters and establishing the mood of the scene. Shimmering against the bare, highly polished wooden floors, the golden robes of the costume indicate the character's sex, age or nature.
The robes on view include the kariginu ("hunting robe"), originally an informal jacket worn by Heian period (894-1185) men, and the atsuita ("thick-board") heavy weave robe used for male characters, as well as the karaori ("Chinese weave") kimono for female characters. In addition to the basic use of the robe to identify the sex of the character, the robe can have a wide range of meanings associated with its color or pattern. Usually, red in the karaori is used for young female roles, while karaori without red are used for elderly females. Bold designs with Genji wheels, dragons, clouds or thunder are reserved for male roles, and the triangular "fish-scale" pattern is used for demonic spirits or characters pushed to madness.
On another level, the colors and motifs reverberate with symbolic and poetic associations drawn from a rich literary tradition. The pairing of the patterns on view with poetry from such classics as the poetic anthologies Man'yoshu (The Ten Thousand Leaves, 8th century) and Kokin Wakashu (Collection of Early and Modern Japanese Poetry, ca. 905) or the eleventh century novel the Tale of Genji is meant to illuminate the poetic resonance of the motifs. From ancient times, imagery of the robe appears frequently in classical poems of love and emotion. Sleeves waving sad farewells, white-cloth sleeves that must pull apart as day approaches, and sleeves drenched in tears are sprinkled through the anthologies beside images of belts wrapped lovingly around a waist, or skirts associated with one's wife. In addition, looms and the act of weaving or sewing are important motifs used to convey feelings of the heart. By contrasting the act of careful weaving with the chaotic motion of scattering, the following poem heightens a sense of sadness for the evanescence of love and all things in life:
shimo no tate tsuyu no nuki koso
yama no nishiki no oreba katsu chiru
Frail indeed must be
cross threads of frost and drawn threads fashioned of dewdrops,
for brocades in the mountains are woven only to scatter.
Sekio, Kokin Wakashu, no. 291
Translation by Helen Craig McCullough, Kokin Wakashu (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1985), p. 72.
In the tenth century classic, Tales of Ise, the poet Narihira is so taken by a glimpse of two beautiful sisters living at Kasuga village that he excitedly tears a strip from his hunting robe and writes a poem to send to them:
Kasugano no Wakamurasaki no Surigoromo
Shinobu no midare Kagiri shirarezu
Like the random pattern of this robe,
Dyed with the young purple From Kasuga Plain--
Even thus is the wild disorder
Of my yearning heart. ''
Translation by Helen Craig McCullough, Tales of Ise (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1968), p. 69.
The type and design of the robes are carefully chosen by the performer to present an interpretation of the character. While the type and pattern of the robe form the basic vocabulary for the interpretation, the creative combination of patterns and colors could be quite unique with each performance and reflect the special talent of the performer.