It was night.
In a time before the intrusion of electricity on the narrow streets that still crisscross haphazardly around Yotsuya Temple in Edo era Tokyo.
Only the waxy glow of lanterns lit the narrow alleyway that led to the home of Iemon, a samurai whom the fates had blessed with the fatal combination of being both luckless and hot tempered.
Iemon has fallen in love with a beautiful girl, as beautiful as the goddess she had been named after, with a face as round and pale as the moon reflected upon a pond.
This was Oiwa.
Earlier in the evening Iemon had asked her father for her hand. The request was flatly refused. Oiwa's father had laughed at Iemon, calling the low born samurai an inconsequential ronin, unworthy of Oiwa in every way. Oiwa's father's friends had joined in the laughter and the incident was quickly brushed under the tatami.
And the lanterns flickered deep into the night.
But now it is many jars of sake later and Oiwa's father is making his way homeward when a figure congeals from the inky shadows, a heaving silhouette, the brushstrokes of his top knot in disarray against the oily lamplight.
"I ask you again for the hand of Oiwa."
Oiwa's father's snort is guttural, dismissive.
"Iemon. You again. Have you not seen the beauty of Oiwa? How could you even hope for my consent when you are nothing but an umbrella mender?"
Iemon's reply is a whisper of steel.
A glint in the lamplight later and Oiwa's father is halved, gurgling briefly from both sides of his bisected throat and then, from the darkness, there is silence.
Thus begins the ghost story of Yotsuya Kaidan.
The tale of Oiwa.
Before it is over Iemon will have disposed of the father's body, married Oiwa, become enamored of a rich woman, poisoned Oiwa, killed his trusted servant, nailed them both to a door and pushed them down the river only to be haunted by the disfigured face of Oiwa as it rises from the lanterns and lashing out at it, he adds the rich woman to his list of victims. It is then that Oiwa finds her true calling as tormentor and eventually draws Iemon to his death one night in the black expanse at the edge of a jagged cliff, far beyond the lanterns' glow.
In my search for the mask of satori this is a cliff I wanted to dangle my toes over the edge of.
I am not alone.
No less than 35 movies have been made depicting the horrors that became of Iemon and Oiwa. Tatsuya Nakadai lent his haunted expression to the tale in 1959. To this day Japanese horror filmmakers visit and pay homage to the shrine of Oiwa to avoid the inevitable curse of delays and even serious injury that befall any production company that does not pay its respects before beginning filming.
Nakadai in Gates of Hell.
So in creating a mask whereby one actor could play both Oiwa and Iemon at the same time I tried to borrow that principle.
So my mask for Oiwa the Beauty is also the mask of Iemon's Avarice and ultimately the mask of what Oiwa would become.
Oiwa and Iemon in the Mirror
In Praise of Sorrows
Woven into all of these stories is a sadness the depths of which I had never witnessed before coming here.
There seems to be a kind of baseline thrum, a mean high tide line as it were, in which sadness rests firmly as the dominant chord.
Sadness as the norm.
Which makes a kind of sense.
For joy is, and must always be, the aberration.
Humor, laughter, excitement all thrive on the same fundamental ingredient: the unexpected.
Rob them of this crucial element and they fade back into the murk of the everyday.
Yet it is this grey tone of sadness that creates the necessary contrast to see all the many joys life has to offer.
Sadness is expectable.
Fun lives in the surprises.
His Name Is Norm.
Mind you, this was a joyful night. Aided by my many masks from Japan and Bali, Italy and France plus the talent of fellow clown Sean Kempton and the quick translation work of the wonderful Ryoko Ohtaki, the workshop was filled with laughs, some interesting what I call Juxtaposes and all forms of non-verbal communication. I think I may even have picked up a whole new dialect of body language in the process.
The workshop was held in Taki San, our Kooza receptionist's hand made "One Kitchen" located deep in the tangled streets of Yotsuya, a short walk from Oiwa's shrine. (and former home.)
But back to Sadness.
In one particular exercise, which I have done with everything from seasoned professionals to inmates at a maximum security lock up for the criminally insane, involves half the group writing the names of various body parts on slips of paper while the other half writes emotions. I'm purposefully vague in my instructions, quickly saying "Happy, sad, angry or afraid, you know, something like that."
I usually get some interesting ones to work with especially when coupled with the body parts and people enjoy watching their fellow participants struggle with something like "Proud Tailbone" guy with a "Dangerous Chin."
But perhaps unsurprisingly given the underpinnings of the culture, of the fifteen or so emotion cards the Japanese participants had jotted down, nine of them were sadness.
And perhaps this is another form of protection, a lantern light at the edge of the abyss.
For sadness gives joy a place to arrive from.
Amber Waves of Disdain
Meanwhile I'm performing ten shows a week.
I am happy to report I am no longer killing a cricket.
In North America it made perfect sense (and got laughs) to kill (squash, mangle, smear, eat, snort, fall on, slip on, dance on, have tea with etc.) a cricket at the end of our mad cannon chase through the audience that culminates our 1st clown act in Kooza.
Alone on stage and keeping a wary eye on the cue light that signals me that the high wire contraption has successfully been put up during our high jinks, I would squash an imaginary if recalcitrant cricket to glean a couple laughs before exiting.
In Japan, where crickets are revered in haiku and kept as good luck charms by the elderly that did not fly.
It didn't even hop.
For weeks I could feel waves of disdain cross the footlights.
Finally I switched it to a fly. Flies apparently do not afford the same respect as the vaunted cricket.
And the warm, human, unexpected clown-in-trouble moments came back.
Sorting my yikes and disyikes.
Musashi and the Clown
Recently I've been catching the fly (initially) with my fingers like hashi (chopsticks) in a nod to the tale of Miyamoto Musashi dissuading some bandits at a roadside inn from thinking his disheveled appearance in any way reflected his zanshin (readiness/awareness) nor his skill.
While the bandits were planning what angle they would approach to rob him, he casually plucked out of the air and with lightening quickness the 3 flies that had been circling his bowl and laid them stunned but alive on the table side and continued his meal.
Maybe not the entire circus crowd under the big top gets the reference but enough do to get that little flash in the darkness.
Workshop pictures by Masaki Tokutomi.