On utamakura

The philosopher Ueda Shizuteru identifies three linguistic registers that we all employ. He calls them signal, symbolic, and hollow. The signal register is when there is a direct correspondence between the utterance and a thing as perceived in conventional reality. The symbolic is when the word or phrase suggests a constellation of associations and emotions in addition to (or instead of) pointing towards a concrete thing. The hollow is when the speech implies something which is beyond what is considered natural in conventional reality: religious language, absurdist humour, and poetry fall into this category.

Utamakura, a category of poetic words derived from place names that have been used for more than a millennium by Japanese poets, can function on all three levels simultaneously: They indicate the named place (signal), evoke intertextual associations with previous poems (symbolic), and, because their web of associated meanings originated so long ago, inevitably the images they invoke of places which remain real in large part no longer match reality (hollow). The disconnect between image and reality, between intellectual comprehension and senses, is one way that these poems can disrupt our sense of what is real. This skeptical stance towards conventional reality – which in the Kamakura period was considered a Buddhist soteriological function of poetry – can in our modern age also be construed as a questioning of the consumption-driven necropolitics of late capitalism.

On utamakura 7: Shiogama

The final piece in the seven-part utamakura series (with the caveat that number six has not yet been completed), is based not around poetry, but a nō play Tōru by Zeami, one which features a much larger number of utamakura words than a typical play would. The complex web of associations begins with the title location, which refers both to a place in Miyagi (just south of the famously beautiful Matsushima) and a 9th-century Kyoto garden (Kawara-no-in) which was built by Minamoto no Tōru to mimic it. By using tens of utamakura in the play, Zeami’s text produces a kaleidoscopic vortex of associations, across the centuries, seasons, and locations that defy reality, creating a hollow, magical theatrical place which enchants, discombobulates, and, perhaps, reveals something about the the openness of reality beyond the conventional view.

This piece follows the structure of Zeami’s play but evokes its mystical world with dance, live music, pre-recorded video and soundscape recordings (from both Kyoto and Shiogama), as well as incense and food. It is my hope that, through the different levels of expressive ambiguity afforded by dance, sound, video, scent, and taste, some semblance of the almost-shamanistic hollowness afforded by Zeami’s original can be sensed here, in a guise less rooted in linguistics and more in the pure experience of music theatre.

Brief Summary of Zeami’s Tōru, as abstractly reflected in the structure of utamakura 7: Shiogama

A wanderer approaches the centuries-old ruins of Tōru’s grand pleasure gardens, the centrepiece of which was a vast pond filled with salt water (suggesting the scenery of Miyagi’s Shiogama/Matsushima area). Salt had been extracted from the pond by boiling the water in kilns (shiogama means salt kiln).

An old man (or a vision of one) approaches, ready to collect water for salt-making (though the pond has been dry for centuries). The poetic history of the garden, Shiogama, and all the famous utamakura areas visible to the East, South, and West of Kawara-no-in are discussed by the old man and the visitor.

The old man reveals himself as the ghost of Tōru, the dandy aristocrat who had built the gardens, then disappears. The wanderer sleeps fitfully amidst the ruins.

Tōru appears in a dream and dances for his audience of one, reliving the splendours of the past before ascending to the palace of the moon, his new home.