Program Notes

JAY REISE (B. 1950)


The name Urashima Tarō first appears in the 15th century in illustrated popular fiction; however, the story itself is much older, dating back to the 8th century. The tale bears a similarity to those of other cultures including Pandora’s Box, Rip Van Winkle, and Alice in Wonderland. It has been told, retold, altered and amended to the point where it is difficult to assign a definitive or original version. Many modern master storytellers including Ursula LeGuin to Osamu Dazai have created their own versions, Dazai even stepping out from behind the curtain during his charming philosophical retelling to comment on other renditions. In my version, Urashima, rather than dying, undergoes a transformation into what I describe as the Princess of the Sea’s gift of oblivion. ‘Oblivion’ is meant to suggest something beyond conscious life but short of death, a state we cannot say does not exist, and a place from which the princess may possibly bring Urashima back into her timeless and eternal domain - the sea.

Part I
Urashima plants a tree sprig with his parents and friends before going to fish. He bids them farewell and sets out to his boat. On the way, he spots a group of children torturing a tortoise. The tortoise is sacred to the Princess of the Sea, so Urashima chases the children away and sets it free. He paddles out far from shore and drops his line in the water. He feels a nibble and catches - a tortoise. So for the second time that day Urashima frees a tortoise, but this time the creature does not disappear into the waves but rather turns to Urashima, thanks him for sparing his life, and offers to take him to meet the Princess of the Sea. Urashima jumps on the tortoise’s back and they plunge into the waves. After a long journey they come to a bumpy halt. Urashima hears the distant sounds of a shakuhachi (Japanese flute), and floating with the current moves towards the music. Then, like an apparition, the figure of a lovely woman comes into view. It is the Princess. She takes his hand and Urashima instantly falls in love.

Part II
After a long period of happiness, Urashima asks the Princess to let him go home for a little while to visit his parents. She pleads with him to remain with her, but eventually reluctantly agrees. She gives him a parting gift, a small box. She tells him he must always keep the box with him and only open it if he has nowhere to go and no hope for the future. Urashima solemnly promises. Urashima returns to his village but sees that everything is changed. People pass him by as if he were a complete stranger. He goes to his home but other people live there. He wanders into the graveyard and is shocked to see the ghosts of his parents and friends. Alongside his parents’ graves he discovers a marker declaring ‘Urashima Taro—a famous fisherman - hooked a tortoise, was dragged down into the sea, and never came back. On a moonlit night, he and the tortoise can still be seen riding on the waves.’ Urashima returns to where he had planted the sapling but finds a gigantic tree in its place. He has nowhere to go and only one hope. Remembering the little box, he takes it from around his neck and holds it in front of him. He calls the Princess. Again and again. There is no answer. His faith and hope are gone. He opens the box. Suddenly an icy chill shoots through all his blood: his teeth fall out, his face shrivels, his hair turns white as snow, his legs become rooted to the spot, and his limbs wither. But as they shrivel they become brittle like tree branches. Urashima Taro has in fact been transformed into a tree. The Princess of the Sea had indeed given him a great gift: Oblivion to this world and an entrance to another.

Program notes by the composer