Kyoto Kanze Noh Theater

Kō-u

Summary

The stage is set on the plains of the Wujiang river in ancient China. As usual, the grass-cutters finish their work and decide to go home. They call out to an old boatman and cross the river in his boat. Upon reaching the other side, the old man requests a single flower as payment for the ferry ride. When one of the grass-cutters offers some wildflowers, the old man chooses a beautiful one. When asked why, he explains that this flower grew on the mound commemorating Kō-u (Ch Xiang Yu)’s beloved concubine, Lady Gushi (Ch: Yuji). He then tells the story of how Kō-u fought many battles with Kōso (Ch: Liu Bang, the future Emperor Gaozu of Han) but was eventually defeated. Lady Gushi, realizing the defeat, drowned herself, and Kō-u also took his own life by cutting his throat. The old man reveals that he is the ghost of Kō-u and vanishes, asking the grass-cutter to perform a memorial service for him.

At night, while the men are chanting, Kō-u’s ghost appears with the ghost of Lady Gushi. She performs music and dances gracefully but eventually reenacts her tragic suicide from a high tower. Kō-u, mourning their separation, reenacts his final battle with a spear before disappearing.

Highlights

During the late Qin dynasty, Xiang Yu (Jp: Kō-u) and Liu Bang (Jp: Hōso) fought for control over China. Xiang Yu reached the brink of unifying the country but was thwarted by Liu Bang and defeated at the Battle of Gaixia, which is the setting of this play at Wujiang River. This story is well-known from Chinese historical records, particularly the Records of the Grand Historian, but the nō play is believed to be based on descriptions from the Taiheiki.

The grass-cutter appears holding a bundle of grass with flowers, specifically poppies (hina-geshi). These flowers are known as “Gushi’s poppy,” named after the legend that poppies grew on Lady Gushi’s grave. The play was once called Bijin sō (Beauty Grass). Unlike typical mugen nō, where monks perform chants, this play has grass-cutters conducting the memorial service for Kō-u’s ghost. The old boatman might symbolize the local people who prepared a boat for Kō-u Yu to escape during the Battle of Gaixia, an offer he refused.

The old boatman narrates how Kō-u was surrounded by enemies, leading to the origin of the phrase “Besieged on all sides” (shimen soka). In the historical Records of the Grand Historian, Kō-u hears the songs of his enemies from all sides and realizes his own men have surrendered. In the nō play, the betrayal is depicted through the shouting of his former allies, leading him to accept his defeat.

In the latter half of the play, a tall tower (stage prop) is placed at the front of the stage. A key moment is when Lady Gushi reenacts her suicide from this tower, followed by Kō-u searching for her body with a spear. The performance concludes with Kō-u’s vigorous reenactment of his last battle, filling the stage with his valiant presence.

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