Asian Theatre Journal 17.2 (2000) 253-268
[Access article in PDF]
Debut Panel Papers
From Representation to Apotheosis: No's Modern Myth of Okina
Eric C. Rath *
Abstract. Modern discussions of ritual and the origins of the six-hundred-year-old Japanese no theatre have focused on the enigmatic Okina dance--one of the "three rites," shikisanban, enacted today by performers at the New Year's and other ceremonial occasions. For modern no actors, Okina is the heart of no: a living prototype of the ritual theatre no once supposedly embodied but somehow lost. Yet Okina's very rituality differentiates it from no. Hence Okina is cited both as an archetype of no's past and as a salient point of contrast for defining no's artistry today.
This article declares this relationship between Okina and no to be a modern formulation resulting from three factors: a change in religiosity in the early twentieth century, the role of scholars and performers of that era in reclaiming Okina's centrality to no, and assumptions in the fields of anthropology and folklore studies about the origin of theatre in ritual. The modern conceptualization of Okina functions as an invented tradition engendering authority for no professionals, particularly the hereditary elite, who compete to lay claim to its mystery, sanctity, and power.
The ritual dance of the "old man," Okina, has been important to no theatre from before the time of Zeami (d. 1443), and its relationship to no and its meaning have been debated ever since. One of "three rites," shikisanban, Okina is part of a series of dances now reserved for special occasions. Okina is called a ritual. 1 And the so-called ritual aspects of the dance are reversals of the typical dramaturgical conventions of no. For example: secret ceremonies take place backstage before [End Page 253] the performance, actors don their masks onstage in full view of the audience, and they use atypical modes of performance. Paradoxically, scholars and performers consider Okina to be the basis for no drama, and it is a familiar point of comparison for delineating no's salient features. The interpretation of Okina as a ritual is supported by the view that the actor in the role of Okina is said to become, or unite with, a divinity when he puts on the Okina mask.
The interpretation of Okina as a ritual act of apotheosis, or shamanistic possession, as described below, is a modern replacement for premodern explanations of Okina. In the premodern era, Okina and the rest of the dances of the shikisanban were viewed as representations of the divine. But in the modern era, Okina has come to be called an act of apotheosis. Premodern views of Okina relied on religious exegesis; the modern interpretation was created after the underpinnings of these religious modes of thinking came into dispute. Consequently, the modern version can be termed an "invented tradition" that testifies to the authority of the no profession while masquerading as a ritual reenactment of an ancient spiritual rite. 2 I will begin with a brief description of the modern performance of Okina before outlining the evolution of its interpretation.
Although Okina is performed by the same actors who enact no, certain theatrical conventions found in no are transgressed to distinguish Okina as a ritual. Okina is usually performed on special occasions, such as New Year's, and, whenever it is performed, it is always the first work on the program. 3 Three other characteristics mark Okina as different from no. First, in contrast to no plays, Okina begins with elaborate ceremonies enacted backstage. Second, Okina lacks typical elements of no including identifiable characters, plot, and setting--to name the most outstanding differences. And third, the actor dancing the role of Okina is said not to be representing a god as in a no play: rather he is said to magically become the god.
The audience can catch only a glimpse of the rituals occurring backstage prior to the performance, when one of the performers momentarily parts the curtain separating the greenroom from the stage...