Impressions from this year’s Zeami memorial seminar

Every year on the 8th of August there is a meeting of Noh researchers and enthusiasts, organized in memory of Zeami (1363-1443) in the Nara prefecture by the Association for Noh and Kyōgen Studies. Please read this past entry – Remembering Zeami, where I explained in detail what the seminar consists in.

Luckily, I had the chance to go there this year too, so I would like to share some more images and thoughts on this event.

On August 7th we went as usual to the temple of Hōzanji in Ikoma, for the yearly exhibition of manuscripts. Some of them are written in Zeami’s or Zenchiku’s hand, while others are later documents related to the Komparu school of Noh.

Hōzanji - a smaller prayer hall (beyond it, the Hannya cave)

A prayer hall of the Hōzanji complex (beyond it, the Hannya cave)

View over the town of Ikoma from Hōzanji

View over the town of Ikoma from Hōzanji

As you might guess, taking photographs of the manuscripts is forbidden. So I’ll use for illustration an image that was already on the web – a fragment of the “Eguchi” manuscript by Zeami.

Noh "Eguchi"

Noh “Eguchi”

Like the other Noh manuscripts by Zeami (“Tomoakira”, “Unrin’in”, “Morihisa”, “Kashiwazaki” a.o.), it’s written mostly in katakana – for very practical reasons in fact. Besides it being the simplest way to ensure the correct pronounciation of the words, this kind of script helps synchronizing the syllables to the chant (fushi 節) . Not to mention that it makes easier the use of kakekotoba – projecting two meanings on one word, the stylistic device that accounts for much of the typical flavour of Noh texts.

Leaving back Hōzanji, for the ones in the area August 8th begins with a visit to Fuganji 補厳寺, the place where Zeami deepend his studies of Zen in his late years. There is not much left of the temple itself, as it burnt to the ground about two centuries ago. However, the family which owns the place now has inherited the old temple records, which mention Zeami (his Buddhist name Shiō 至翁), as one of the donors of the temple.

The gate of Fuganji

The gate of Fuganji

Pine tree guarding the entrance to Fuganji

Pine tree guarding the entrance to Fuganji

The seminar, usually held in Nara, took place this time in Tawaramoto, the town where Fuganji is located. The reason behind this change was the celebration of 30 years since the creation of the monument marking Fuganji as a place related to Zeami.

Zeami sangaku no chi - "The place where Zeami came for his Buddhist studies "

Zeami sangaku no chi – “The place where Zeami came for his Buddhist studies “

The monument was created at the initiative of Noh researchers Omote Akira and Itō Masayoshi, the ones who discovered the names of Zeami and his wife’s in the old temple records. The donations of many Noh enthusiasts from all over Japan made the completion of this monument possible.

One more image from the surroundings of Fuganji, located in the Ajima district of Tawaramoto.

tanbo

If you ignore the utility poles in the background, do you think that this landscape has changed much since Zeami’s time? Facing the broadness of this view, I found myself trying to imagine what Zeami’s eyes saw, in the hope of catching a glimpse of the environment that shaped his thought and of what inspired him to write his plays. Not much of a clue for research, but I somehow have the feeling that just by seeing this landscape we get a little closer to Zeami.

 

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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.

Three ways of enjoying noh theatre

Noh 能 or nōgaku 能楽 is a multifaceted art combining music, dance, chant, masked acting, and beyond them all a kind of cultural memory shared by the performers and the audience, which allows for details of the story to be left unsaid, only alluded to.

The best way to know this theatre form is unarguably through the performance itself – to experience the tempo of the actor’s movement on stage, to feel the chills at seeing the expression of the mask he is wearing, to hear the music of the flute and the rhythm of the drums – all hinting at the fact that you are witnessing an apparition from another world. The acting techniques and all the details of the performance have been handed out through generations of actors and the long history of this tradition gives noh its specific atmosphere.

Noh Izutsu (C) Hibiki-no-kai

On the other hand, a more accessible way of appreciating noh is to direct your attention the stories that noh plays allude to. Most of these stories seem to come from a distant, magical past. That is why the plays feature ghosts appearing in the dreams of those who come to search for remnants of that past.

In one play, the ghost of a woman who had been the wife of the poet Ariwara no Narihira comes at the water-well near the grave of her husband and remembers the time they spent together. As she looks into the well, instead of her own reflection she sees the face of the one whom she dearly misses.  (Izutsu)

In another play the ghost of the famous warrior Minamoto no Yoshitsune himself comes before us to tell of the fierce battles during the Genpei war (1180-1185), which decided the course of Japanese history. Because he lived his life as a warrior, he is damned to spend the rest of eternity in the hell of the ashura, where the fighting never stops. By the end of the play, you don’t know anymore whether the scenes of war he described were of the battles between demons in hell, or of the cosmic battle between night and day, as you awaken from your dream. (Yashima)

Yet another play shows the story of a woman wandering the country in search of her child, who had been kidnapped. Her heart breaks with sorrow when she finds the child’s grave on the bank of river Sumida. She would do anything to see him again. In her distress she has a vision of him coming out of the grave to embrace her. But he is no longer in this world and all she can do is pray for his soul. (Sumidagawa)

These are all stories that have been performed for centuries, embodying the dreams of those who enjoyed them. Nowadays, even just by reading these plays, we cannot help becoming enraptured by the refined feelings that underlie them.

There is still one more way of getting closer to the world of noh, namely through the writings left by actors, such as Zeami (1363-1443). Written about six centuries ago, these treatises have been handed down through generations of performers until nowadays, when they are available in various languages. They contain a theory on acting, impressive in its consistency, taking into account that the art of noh was only at its beginnings in Zeami’s time. These writings are extremely detailed and practical, showing their author’s dedication to his art and the way he sought for the best technique to create and to hold the illusion on the stage for the enjoyment of the audience.

I wouldn’t know how to begin writing an introduction to the world of noh. What I can do is to recommend you the excellent webpage of Noh.com for more information. And also to invite you to follow the articles on noh theatre on this blog.  Due to very objective reasons, there will be a lot of them, trust me 🙂