Remembering Zeami

This year marks the anniversary of 650 years since the birth of Zeami 世阿弥 (1363-1443) and 680 years since the birth of his father, Kan’ami 観阿弥 (1333-1384). They were the first in a long line of performers who contributed to shaping Noh theatre into the refined form that reached our time.

Apart from the anniversary itself, there is actually a commemorative seminar dedicated to Zeami, held every year on the 8th of August in the city of Nara. The event is organized by the Association for Noh and Kyōgen Studies and spans over two days, consisting of a short symposium, a display of old manuscripts related to Noh and a visit to Zeami’s bodaiji (family temple).

The way to Hōzanji

The way to Hōzanji

This year’s seminar debuted as usual with the exhibition of documents at Hōzanji 宝山寺, a temple located in the mountains near the city of Ikoma, Nara prefecture. Zeami’s famous treatises on the art of Noh and several Noh plays in his own handwriting, manuscripts by his son in law Komparu Zenchiku, registries and other very precious original documents related to the history of Noh are taken out from the archives of the temple on this day and displayed publicly. Besides responding to the curiosity of researchers interested in seeing the original manuscripts, there is very practical reason to this display. In order to be kept in good condition, old documents need to be taken out and aired at least once a year (a practice called mushiboshi). The story of how these documents came into safekeeping at Hōzanji is pretty interesting in itself. They all had been handed down in the Komparu family (Zeami left many of his writings to his appointed successor, Zenchiku), but during the second half of Meiji period (1868-1912), when the Noh theatre world was shaken by a severe crisis, the head of the Komparu line of performers of that time, Komparu Hachirō, feared for the safety of the archive, so he sent all the documents into the trusted custody of his brother, who was the chief priest of Hōzanji.

It is there that they have been discovered in the early days of the past century. A large part of the documents has been donated to the Nogami Memorial Noh Theatre Reaserch Institute, where they can be found today under the name of Hannyakutsu bunko 般若窟文庫 (the “Hannya Cavern archive”), which alludes to the huge cavern visible from the precincts of the temple, where it said that the ascetic En no Gyōja had read the Hannyashin-kyō (“The Heart Sutra”) as part of his religious austerities. However, the most valuable manuscripts – the ones written in the hand of Zeami and Zenchiku themselves – have been designated important cultural property of Nara prefecture and have remained in Hōzanji, being shown to the public only once a year on August 7th, the day before Zeami’s commemoration.

Flowers on the path to the temple related to Zeami

Flowers on the path to the temple related to Zeami (how suitable for the man who wrote about the “Flower” of Noh in his treatises)

For the participants to the seminar dedicated to Zeami, the day of August 8th starts early in the morning with a visit to Fuganji 補厳寺, the temple where Zeami and his wife’s names are registered. Fuganji, located in the countryside of Nara prefecture, was a large and influential temple of the Sōtō Zen sect, but its main building burned to the ground at the end of Edo period (1603-1868). The old front gate serves as a reminder of the once flourishing temple. Apart from it, some documents remained and were handed down to the present owners of the property. Zeami’s name appears in the register of people for whom the temple performed ceremonies after their death. It is only on this day, August 8th, that the registers can be viewed by anyone interested. In front of a small altar with a memorial plate bearing Zeami’s name, we have the chance to remember the man whose creations have the power to enchant us to this day.

The seminar itself is being held during the afternoon, usually in the conference hall of the Nara National Museum. Each year researchers present their latest studies on Noh history, in an attempt to deepen the understanding of how Noh was performed in Zeami’s time. This year’s keynote speech was held by professor Takemoto Mikio (researcher in the field of Noh studies, Waseda University) and tackled the characteristics of a manuscript handed down by Zeami to Zenchiku, called Nōhon sanjūgoban mokuroku “An inventory of 35 Noh plays” (the document belongs to the Hōzanji archive). Most of the plays mentioned on that list are no longer extant, while others exist with a different title, making it difficult for researchers to grasp whether such inventories can be indeed relevant to the history of Noh. It is nonetheless fascinating to know that there is still much to search for and to discover, in order to understand how Noh developed in its early days.

Nara tōkae, the festival of lights

Nara tōkae, the festival of lights

All in all, it is a pretty exciting event for Noh enthusiasts, who gather from all the corners of Japan to Nara just to take part in this meeting. It just happens that the Zeami memorial seminar coincides every year with the famous Nara tōkae, the light festival at the beginning of August. Thousands of candles are lit all over the city, creating a sea of lights – both as a remembrance of those departed and as a prayer for peace. It is just another reason to conclude that Nara is the place to be every year around the 8th of August.

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Tokyo theatres in August

Summer is the holiday season for theatres in Europe – a difficult time for theatre lovers, who are thus deprived of their favorite enjoyment for three long months. However it is also the time of performing arts festivals, which do a great job in filling the gap until September, when theatres resume their activities. With Festival d’Avignon in July and The Fringe going on right now until the end of August in Edinburgh, there is still a lot to see and to experience, although clustered in one corner of the continent or another.

In Japan there is no off season for theatres, so business is going on as usual, with hundreds of performances every week, leaving both artists and audiences no time to even dream of feeling bored 🙂 Regardless of their scale, the shows in summer tend to be exuberant, invigorating and full of joie de vivre, so you can rest assured you’ll be leaving the theatre in high spirits no matter where you happen to enter.

Here is a very small selection of August performances, which I would recommend heartily:

Unarguably the most awaited show of this summer in Tokyo is ABKAI ―えびかい―, starring kabuki actor Ichikawa Ebizō and comprising two performances – Jayanagi『蛇柳』, a famous play in the kabuki repertoire, firstly performed by Edo period kabuki star Ichikawa Danjurō in 1763, and Hanasaka jiisan『花咲じいさん』, an original kabuki dramatization of a Japanese fairy-tale. Award-winning dramatist Miyazawa Akio has been entrusted with writing the script for the latter, while Miyamoto Amon, renowned for his staging of musicals, is responsible for its direction. With this trio of highly acclaimed artists, the performance promises to be a real success. “ABKAI” has already started on August 3rd and will continue until the 18th at Bunkamura Theater Cocoon in Shibuya.

At the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre, Theatre East, the theatre company mum & gypsy will perform their latest work “cocoon” from August 5th through 18th. Originally a manga by illustrator Kyō Machiko, “cocoon” depicts Okinawa during World War II. The mixture of real facts with fantasy in this work has been praised enthusiastically, leading to its dramatization under the supervision of young director Fujita Takahiro, himself an artist who has been gathering much attention recently.

Yaneura © Rinkogun

Yaneura © Rinkogun

Starting with August 30th through September 5th we will have the chance to see Rinkōgun’s famous work “The Attic” Yaneura『屋根裏』(directed by Sakate Yōji), which will be restaged at the company’s atelier Umegaoka Box. (Yes, you’ve got it right. The whole action unfolds inside that trapezoid box!). Rinkōgun will be touring Europe this year in September, by the way, with performances of “The Attic” in Ukraine and Italy.

The performances I personally look forward to seeing this month:

On the side of traditional performing arts there is a special summer event held on August 29th at the National Noh Theatre, consisting of three separates acts, each belonging to a different genre of comedy – kyōgen “Hanaori”, rakugo “Shinigami” and kōdan “Hachi no ki”.

Have a fabulous summer, everyone, wherever you happen to find yourselves, inside or outside the theatre 🙂

Change of tactics

The blessing of summer holidays is finally here, so there are no more excuses for me not updating this blog 🙂 All the plays I’ve been seeing lately just cannot wait to be turned into material for articles.

However I’ve been thinking of doing some changes in the way I write. One of the fascinating things about theatre is its openness – it easily inpires thoughts, images and further connections, and it is a real joy to explore each and every corner of the world that opens up after you leave the theatre, whilst you are still under the lingering impression of what you have witnessed.

As much as I would like to write in detail about every theatre performance, the lack of time is really pressing, so I have no choice but to select one or two plays from the ones I see each month. In this selection process, usually smaller scale performances get sacrificed, although they may have been just as impressive.

So I’ve thought of writing shorter, mainly informative articles along the more elaborate ones, which require some research. As I will probably end up writing while commuting by train or while being half asleep, I apologize in advance for the roughness of their style. I will give it a try and see how it goes.

One more thing I’ve been thinking about is a adding monthly selection of upcoming shows. The idea was inspired to me while reading some articles on the Imperial Theatre written by Zoe Kincaid in a newspaper from the beginning of the century, called “The Far East”. Mrs. Kincaid used to announce upcoming performances at the major theatres in Tokyo at that time – late Taishō era (1912-1926): The Imperial Theatre, Meiji-za, Shintomi-za and Kabuki-za. To be honest, I was mesmerized by her enthusiastic, witty and exceptionally insightful style and I learned greatly about the Japanese stage of that time.

But even more than that, I liked the idea of announcing a play before its actual stage production. It will be hard to choose three or four performances out of hundrends going on each month (the theatre world nowadays differs greatly, both in numbers and in quality, from the one covered by Mrs. Kincaid). Moreover, I am aware that the selection will most probably reflect my own tastes and circumstances, that is why it shouldn’t be taken too seriously. It is only an attempt to get even closer to the Japanese theatre scene and to take the readers of this blog with me along the way 🙂