Some thoughts on Semimaru

This year’s Tatsushige-no-kai, Udaka Tatsushige’s self-produced performance event, features the famous play Semimaru. The masks which will be seen in this performance are the Semimaru from the Kongō collection and a Masukami carved by Udaka Keiko. As the day of the performance approaches (28 August 2022) we asked INI founding member Rebecca Teele Ogamo to share some of her thoughts about this highly poetic and touching play.


Semimaru introduces a prince and princess, Semimaru and his sister Sakagami, who, because of karmic misdeeds in past lives, are forced into circumstances opposite what might be expected of their royal birth. The prince is blind, and the princess is not right in her mind. While there are many legends associated with Semimaru and shrines dedicated to him, such as Seki Semimaru Shrine in Shiga prefecture, Sakagami is an original character created by the author, Zeami.  

At the start of the drama Semimaru because of his affliction, is being taken to be abandoned at a lonely mountain barrier at the order of his father the emperor. Though his eyes are unable to see, he has the insight to understand this seemingly cruel fate as a demonstration of his father’s compassion and concern as he is being allowed the opportunity to make positive advances towards his fate in future lives. A humble sympathizer provides him with a simple hut. His head shaved to indicate he has renounced the world, he is left with his biwa, a kind of lute, of which he is a master. Perhaps we might call him a kind of “old soul.” 

Sakagami, on the other hand, seems to see all too well, the intensity of the passion with which she perceives discrepancies in the order of the world lead her hair to stand on end and her words are taken as wild ravings to be mocked by those she encounters. What is the proper order of things? Seeds planted in the ground manifest as flowers above us; the moon shines in the sky above, while, moonlight, its reflection, penetrates the depths of the sea. An over-active inquiry into such things can lead down the slippery slope of heresy and of madness.

Sakagami’s wanderings after Semimaru has left the capital take her at last to a place where she hears the unexpected sound of a lute which she recognizes and brother and sister meet in the mountain depths. Reunited, they share their mutual pain and sorrow, until drawn by her destiny to wander, Sakagami leaves, even as Semimaru is destined to stay where he is. They part weeping, with Semimaru calling that he hopes his sister will visit again. She turns, her tears, which he cannot see, her answer.

In the photos above, Udaka Tatsushige’s father, the late Udaka Michishige, performs Semimaru at the old Kongō Nō Theatre.

The Semimaru mask used by the Kongō school shows the aristocratic features of a young man who seems in deep meditation, eyes half closed, but other senses alive to other information:  the sound of concern in a retainer’s voice, the feeling of a breeze on the skin, the scents of the forest. The mask seems to accept and absorb what is around it without any negative or judgmental response. Even when the mask is moved, its expression seems to change very little. 

The Masukami mask associated with the Kongō school for the role of Sakagami is seen in roles of goddesses or of women moved by heightened emotions, such as a shrine maiden in a state of possession. As the performer moves, an expression of grief changes to frustration or a cool despair appropriate to a goddess knowing displeasure with the human world, or with fellow divine beings. It is a powerful mask that challenges the viewer to rip aside the veil blurring the distinctions between worlds. A mask called Zo-Onna with similar qualities is often used for the role.

Semimaru is sometimes described as being a terribly tragic play as brother and sister are caught, willy-nilly, by a karmic fate that seems unbearably cruel. My own impression, through the power of the masks I’ve seen in performance, is of two survivors who deal with their fate differently, one with acceptance, the other with resistance, who meet and share nurturing tears, before parting to fulfill their destinies. Through the creation of the role of Sakagami Zeami introduces a meditation on an understanding and approach to the conundrums of life which are as immediate today as when the play was written.

Rebecca Teele Ogamo

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