Back in my youth, I thought that One Day I’d know enough Japanese to translate the songs of rock bands I like, and I’d become famous and loved as an Internet lyrics translator. This memory popped out of the blue, and I thought: I wonder if I could do it already? I’ve read the original for Rashômon, after all, and this isn’t Onmyô-za; how hard it could be?
Well… quite hard. :)
Ningen Isu is a hard-prog band (comparable to King Crimson in style) whose concept/theme/gimmick is literature (as the name suggests). If one happens to like all three of literature, heavy rock, and Japanese culture, they kind of hit a sweet spot; otherwise, I won’t blame you for not caring. This song is based on the eponymous Akugatawa short story, and not on Kurosawa’s eponymous film, which is based on another, non-eponymous Akutagawa short story.
I’m having difficulty with a few points, but since I already started I might as well post it. I couldn’t do English poetry if my life depended on it, so I made no effort at all for proper metrics &c.
suzaku ooji no chihei ni
shogyô-mujô no hi wa ochi
haruka ushitora no haha yo
ashita ware wa tabidachinu
All about the Suzaku Avenue¹
the sun of evanescence² is setting.
Oh distant Mother of Northeast³,
tomorrow I leave on a journey.
kono kuni wa tare mo oni no katachi
fuku kaze mo mune wo toori-nukeru
In this country, everyone has the semblance of demons
even the wind blows through our chest
—This is the
are wa toribeyama no sô
amida negai waga-mi yaku
That’s a monk from Mount Toribe
The Amida Vows would scorch me⁴
shiawase wa ubai-tsukamu mono ka
yuku kawa ni mi wo makasu koto ka
To snatch happiness and take it by force
To entrust myself to the flowing river?⁵
—This is the
tooryanse tooryanse ano-yo to kono-yo no rokudô no
tooryanse tooryanse kaeri wa nangi na tsuji naredo
The Six Paths⁷ of this world and the other world
Oh after this crossing⁸ it’s hard to go back
higashi no kata: seiryû noborite jôgen no tsuki naru
nishi no kata: byakko no minagiru chishio wo nomi-hosan
minami no kata: shujaku no saezuri oto ni mo kike ware wo
kita no kata: genbu ni matagari akatsuki e kakeyuku
To the East: The Blue Dragon⁹ rises and becomes the crescent
To the West: The White Tiger gushes blood that I’ll drink dry
To the South: The Vermillion Bird’s song is what I can hear!
To the North: I ride the Black Warrior and stride for the dawn
Suzaku is Zhūquè, the guardian spirit of South (see below). Suzaku Avenue was a main pathway in the Heian capital, linking the Rashômon gates of the city at the south to the Suzakumon gates of the inner palace at the north. Notice Akutagawa changed the spelling of Rashômon, 羅城門、 to 羅生門； the pronunciation is the same, but the change in characters suggest “gates of life” instead of “gates of the castle”.
“Evanescence”: Shogyô-mujô, “impermanence of worldly things”. A fairly transparent Buddhist doctrine, and one of the Three Seals 三法印 sanbôin of the Dharma. Buddhism is a major motif in the short story, providing the moral ideals that the protagonist will ultimately give up.
“Mother of Northeast”: This is a cool word. The Chinese have a system of mnemonics called the Twelve Branches, often referred to in English (and Japanese) by their associated “zodiac” animals. But the branches are used to organize various other sequences, such as directions on the compass; of interest here are two Branches, 丑 chǒu and 寅 yín, standing at 30° and 60° from North. The Japanese usually read the characters for the Branches with the translation of their associated animal; in this case, the Ox (ushi) and the Tiger (tora). Therefore, Northeast (the point midway between the two) is ushitora “ox-tiger”.
And why is this written 艮 and not, say, 丑寅 or 牛虎？ More correspondences: The etymology of the character is disputed, but 艮 was borrowed early to denote one of the I Ching trigrams, ☶ gèn (J. gon), which happens to stand for northeast in a Bāguà scheme.
And who the hell is the Mother of Northeast? Well, here I’m stumped. It sounds like one of the Bāguà “family positions”, except that the Mother should be at southwest, in the opposite direction. I don’t know what the line means.
Mount Toribe is the classical locus for cremations in the Capital. The Amida Buda made 48 vows, the most notoriously being to not achieve enlightenment until all beings have done so; to help them in the path, he grants the faithful an afterlife in the Western Paradise. The subject appears to be cynical about this doctrine of Grace, since, in his social position, following Amida would quickly lead him to burn in Toribeyama.
The flowing river: A trope for the impermanence of things, made famous in the preface of the Hôjôki, of which the song line might be a direct quote: yuku kawa no nagare wa taezu shite, “the flowing river never ceases…”
Tooryanse (something like “go on through”) is a children’s song. The verses here are pastiches. A passage from the original that resonates below is iki wa yoi yoi, kaeri wa kowai: “going is easy-peasy, returning is scary”.
The Six Realms in Buddhism are a like a maze where lost beings wander.
The protagonist of course stands at a metaphorical crossroads, but perhaps it should be noted that The Crossing of the Six Worlds is an actual place in Kyôto (though not at the time of the tale, I think).
Blue Dragon, &c.: The Four Symbols 四象 sì xiàng (J. Four Gods 四神 shijin) of the four cardinal directions. Notice Suzaku is here referred with the alternative palatalized reading, Shujaku.
What I like in this song is how the writing and the melody both reflect the path of the protagonist, from suffering to doubt to resolve. Also, the motifs of directions and correspondences are quite apropos for both the original short story and for Heian culture in general.
Credits and thanks: