- Another Stage: Kanze Nobumitsu and the Late Muromachi Noh Theater by Lim Beng Choo
The nō theater familiar to today’s audiences is most closely associated with the aesthetics, styles, and structures favored by its earliest playwrights and theorists, particularly Zeami (ca. 1363–ca. 1443), who famously crafted a culturally valued art from folk and ritual performance traditions. When the Tokugawa shogunate co-opted nō as a ritual art in the early seventeenth century, Zeami’s were the ideals it embraced in creating the canon of about two hundred plays that has lasted until today. Nō’s inception and its codification are the salient moments used to describe the arc of nō’s development as taught in most college classrooms: the history of nō involves a relatively steady honing of a peripheral performing art with ritual roots into a highly ritualized theater patronized by Japan’s elite. Yet in the century and a half between Zeami’s day and nō’s adoption by the Tokugawa government, nō encompassed an enormous diversity of styles and forms, as attested to by the thousands of extant extracanonical (bangai) plays. Until recently, scholarship, and particularly English-language scholarship, has largely ignored the [End Page 476] works and writers from the late Muromachi age, in part because of the unevenness of the plays, and in part because there are no treatises or even stage directions left behind by playwrights or theorists from that time, when many plays were written and performed. Lim Beng Choo’s Another Stage sets out to bring attention to this period and one major alternative strain of nō development by addressing the life and works of the period’s most prolific playwright, Kanze Nobumitsu (1435–1516).
Nobumitsu was the seventh son of On’ami, the nephew to whom Zeami famously did not pass his treatises when the shogun Ashikaga Yoshinori paved the way for On’ami to take over as head of the Kanze troupe in 1433, following the sudden death of Zeami’s son Motomasa in 1432. Contemporary records suggest that On’ami was a master of monomane (a performance style often translated as “mimicry” but used in the nō to differentiate realistic movement from dance). This characterization is often used to contrast him with Zeami, who highly valued a symbolic and subtle performance style in his numerous treatises, as suggested by his advocacy of the aesthetic principle of yūgen, “mysterious depth.” Zeami’s preference for understatement was shared by his son-in-law, Konparu Zenchiku, to whom Zeami transmitted his teachings and who is conventionally viewed as Zeami’s spiritual and dramaturgical heir.
Although he and his successors left behind only a handful of treatiselike documents on the nō, On’ami went on to have a very successful career, and his lineage maintained control of the Kanze troupe. Nobumitsu was never named troupe leader, and in fact trained as a drummer rather than as an actor. Yet records of his performances and homage in the form of a lengthy portrait inscription attest to his popularity and influence. And as Lim notes, in the current canon, Nobumitsu is better represented than any playwright other than Zeami. These facts alone, Lim argues, suggest the value of a closer look at Nobumitsu’s life and works when we consider the history of today’s nō and the reality of the art as it was performed during the late Muromachi age.
In drawing attention to this period and arguably its most influential playwright, Lim contributes to the growing body of scholarship on what we might call nō’s middle period. Although her focus is Nobumitsu, some of the issues raised in her discussion are suggestive of broader trends in the nō of the day: a tendency toward action-driven plots, visual extravagance onstage, larger casts, and less clearly defined role types. Through close readings of several of Nobumitsu’s plays, Lim grapples with these issues as she works to create a...