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).
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.
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.
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.