The Ethos of Noh: Actors and Their Art
Books about noh have appeared in abundance in recent years, but none has succeeded so well in rethinking the tradition in its historical context as this study. Eric Rath asks himself a question that, once it has been posed, seems obvious: how was noh transformed [End Page 134] from a medieval theatrical form performed by a motley assortment of entertainers into a classic art dominated by a small group of elite professionals? This transformation has often been explained by analyzing changes in the sponsorship and patronage of noh from the fourteenth to the twentieth centuries. Rath, however, views the situation from the "inside out" and endows noh actors and authors with a far greater degree of agency than is customary. By focusing on how certain performers succeeded in articulating an "ethos" (defined on page 5 as "the sum of a group's traditions, the memories that become important to the group") that fostered institutional changes, Rath succeeds in outlining "the maturation of noh as a profession and its ethos over six hundred years of history" (p. 5).
Chapter 1 begins by analyzing masks as a medium of group memory and identity for noh troupes of the fourteenth century. Masks were often accompanied by tales of magical or divine powers; some were thought to have fallen from heaven. Rath sees masks and the tales that surround them as reminders of the past, ones that become especially important in the absence of writing. Owning a mask or maintaining a monopoly on its use linked the owner or user to an origin and to claims of legitimacy and authority. By the 1450s noh performers had won their case for a monopoly on using masks in noh plays, and shortly thereafter mask-making itself became a profession. Classificatory schemes were created and myths grew more abstract and standardized as certain mask makers and noh performers sought to confirm their rights to formulate and impose standards.
Rath focuses in chapter 2 on the impact of literacy and the creation of secret technical writings on the noh-performing community in the fifteenth century. The introduction of writing, he argues, tended to strengthen the link between the production of myths and the maintenance of hierarchy within each noh troupe. At this time, Zeami's troupe was only one among a number active in the Kyoto area. Other performers included shōmonji, outcasts who received the sponsorship of several major temples. Rath's treatment of the shōmonji is important not just because this group has been almost entirely ignored in English-language discussions of medieval history, but because the effort to eliminate their influence shaped Zeami's and Konparu Zenchiku's representations of what noh is or ought to be.
Chapter 3 traces the popularization of secret manuscripts in the sixteenth century, in particular Hachijō kadensho (the most widely read treatise on noh until the twentieth century). By analyzing the origins, authorship, and content of this treatise, Rath determines that one of its chief rationales was to establish the superiority of the Yamato troupes over the Hie (Hiyoshi) tradition. The Tokugawa bakufu's insistence on unigeniture and bloodlines, as well as the popularization of treatises revealing noh's "secrets" meant that by the seventeenth century genealogy had replaced secret manuscripts as the fundamental medium of myth. Genealogy is discussed in more detail in chapter 4, where it is shown to be inextricably linked to attempts by troupes to connect themselves to founders (in some cases mythical). Pedigree also allowed certain noh performers to contrast themselves to those they deemed "amateurs" (performers often no less skilled or successful in making money from their art) and laid the foundation for claims to secret oral transmissions or other knowledge that came from appropriate ancestry.
Rath turns his attention in chapter 5 to the benefits and challenges that the publishing industry brought to the world of noh during the Edo period. Printed volumes of [End Page 135] noh texts (utaibon) became bestsellers from the early years of the period; other books introduced costumes, staging, and repertoire. Amateur study of noh became something of a fad as the publishing industry converted what had once been private information into public commodities. Noh performers now began to construct their authority less on references to physical objects and secrets, but rather on the authorship of texts. The name of Zeami and the bloodline that followed from him became perhaps the most important legitimating factor in the noh world, especially once publishers attached his name to Hachijō kadensho (which he did not write).
Chapter 6 takes the reader to the iemoto system and probes the connection between control over the publishing industry and the family head's consolidation of the leadership of noh schools. Iemoto systems in noh developed rapidly from the second half of eighteenth century, in tandem with the rise of the publishing industry. Noh actors, chanters, and musicians now derived significant revenues from teaching amateur students. Kanze Motoakira's "reform" of what was to be included in the repertory and his revisions of published noh texts signaled the solid establishment of a "canon" that codified the Kanze school's style. At around the same time Kita Hisayoshi (d. 1829) attempted to standardize masks as well.
The notion of noh as "ritual," the cornerstone of noh's ethos in the modern period, is the subject of chapter 7. "Okina," already treated in chapter 2, did of course contain ritualistic elements, but Rath stresses that the concept of noh as the "ritual theater" (shikigaku) of the Tokugawa bakufu is a modern one, created during a period of institutional crisis for noh. The "ritualization" of noh gained speed after this theatrical form received support by the Imperial Household Ministry and wealthy business magnates during the Meiji period. In 1902 the Noh Association moved from Shiba to the Yasukuni shrine, and links between the emperor and people were enacted when "imperial command performances" were opened to the general public. "Okina," which became the dominant medium of noh's authenticity and original sanctity, also sustained a large number of varying and conflicting religious meanings.
Perhaps the most striking feature of this book is the surefooted manner with which the author contextualizes the statements, writings, and actions of noh performers and authors, thereby shedding much new light on what the old texts mean. What at first glance appears to be a pristine "aesthetic" tenet turns out to be in fact highly political; an obscure old myth suddenly reveals itself to have had highly practical contemporary implications. The emphasis on the performers and what they did or did not do or say allows Rath to dismantle old prejudices shared by many Japanese and Western scholars alike. When he argues, for example, that performance practice and programming during the Edo period became standardized not simply because of some vague "warrior influence," but because noh performers themselves wished to professionalize and raise their own social position, the performers suddenly become three-dimensional active subjects rather than mere passive receptors of imputed warrior wills.
Seeing it "from the inside out" has its limitations, of course, and one rarely gets a sense of the links between noh and the great economic development that supported it during its long history. The emphasis placed on the oral/written dichotomy and the insistence on seeing the advent of the technology of writing and the printed media as the driving force of noh history is, I would contend, somewhat overstated. To stress, say, that "the publishing industry made su'utai an accessible hobby for the rest of society by printing utaibon" (p. 191), would seem to be getting the cart before the horse. [End Page 136] Surely it was commoners' desire to learn su'utai (which cannot be learned simply by purchasing a book) that drove the publishing industry to issue such texts. Why commoners could and did learn su'utai during the Edo period is, of course, another story, but that would take one far beyond texts and secret professional transmissions.
But these complaints are minor and in no way detract from Rath's splendid achievement. By demonstrating that "tradition" is always contested and that orthodoxies and heresies are the product of power relations, Rath has succeeded in showing how power, tradition, and artistic production have interacted through the ages to produce what we know (or think we know) as "noh." Some may wish to cling to the belief that the plays themselves are "timeless" and "ritualistic," but in this volume Rath demonstrates convincingly that the history of noh—which of course includes the plays and performance practice—is not so much a repository of eternal elite values as it is a dynamic and exciting tale, fraught with as much contention as the history of any other art. Too bad that the book could not have been read by Ezra Pound.