A masterly drama about a master dramatist is playing at the New National Theater in Tokyo through Dec. 21. Bando Mitsugoro, a 47-year-old kabuki actor, takes the title role in “Zeami,” a biographical play about the talented writer-actor-director who, in the early 15th century, did more than any other to establish noh theater.

Playwright Masakazu Yamazaki portrays Zeami as a man, who, after achieving fame under the patronage of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358-1408), became fatally embroiled in the rivalry between the shogun’s successors.

Yamazaki is something of a theatrical star himself. A graduate of Kyoto University, where he majored in aesthetics, he completed postgraduate study in drama at both Kyoto and Yale, and wrote “Zeami” in just two weeks in 1963, at the age of 28. The play won a prize and caught the attention of Senda Koreya, then a prominent actor and director of the Haiyuza (Actors’ Theater) in Tokyo. Senda staged “Zeami” the same year, taking the title role. In December 1964, the play received an experimental staging at Asia House in New York City. In 1987, “Zeami” was revived at the Sunshine Theater in Ikebukuro, with kabuki actor Matsumoto Koshiro playing the lead. That version then toured three cities in the United States.

This time round, “Zeami” is directed by Kuriyama Tamiya with another kabuki actor, Bando Mitsugoro, in the title role. Yamazaki has worked with the two before, in a 1992 staging of another of his historical plays, “Shishi o Kau (Taming a Lion),” at the Oriental Theater in Kobe. The playwright confesses that he is especially intrigued by Kuriyama’s casting of veteran actor Morio Kazama in the role of Yoshimitsu’s young son, Yoshitsugu. Yamazaki suggests that Kazama’s Yoshitsugu will evoke the offstage figure of Yoshimitsu, who speaks but is never seen.

Zeami (born Fujiwaka and later assuming the name Kanze Motokiyo) was born in 1363 and raised by his actor-father Kannami, the head of a performing troupe based in the Yamato region (Nara Prefecture). Kannami’s band enjoyed great popularity thanks to his innovative stagings of plays in the humorous sarugaku style, with set movements and gestures, that was an important precursor of noh. When, in 1372, Kannami took the 10-year-old Fujiwaka to Kyoto, the two performed at Daigoji Temple to high acclaim.

When Fujiwaka was 12, father and son performed at Imakumano in Kyoto in Shogun Yoshimitsu’s presence and the boy caught Yoshimitsu’s eye. The shogun became an enthusiastic patron of the boy, who assumed the name Kanze Motokiyo upon coming of age at 16. Yoshimitsu gave him the name by which we know him today, Zeami, along with the position of doboshu. (Literally meaning “friend,” doboshu were Buddhist monks who specialized in the arts; the -ami suffix to their names was derived from Amidha Buddha.)

After his father’s death in 1394, the task of developing noh as a dramatic medium fell to Zeami, and the plays that he wrote are lyrical in expression and heroic or classic in subject. While Yoshimitsu was in power, Zeami enjoyed his favor; even after the shogun’s retirement in 1394 the actor/writer flourished. When his protector died in 1408, however, Zeami’s situation changed — he was plunged into the middle of the fierce rivalry between Yoshimitsu’s two sons, Yoshimochi, who was ruling as shogun, and his half-brother Yoshitsugu.

Yoshimochi did not like Zeami and favored a performer named Zoami, who belonged to a dengaku group, a dance-based performance art popular at the time. Yoshitsugu, though, was sympathetic to Zeami. Yamazaki opens his drama with the brothers’ rivalry, and follows Zeami through the next 25 years.

Those years are played out on the spacious stage of the NNT against a simple yet attractive set, in which the famous Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion) is represented by a single golden pillar. It is the spring of 1408 and Yoshimitsu has invited Doami, a noted sarugaku master, to his sumptuous villa at Kitayama in Kyoto to perform, with Zeami, noh plays for his important guest, Emperor Gokomatsu. Street entertainers mill about the stage and one of them, an old soothsayer, predicts an approaching change in the Ashikaga shogunate — the demise of Yoshimitsu.

Zeami, pondering his relationship with the shogun, voices his realization that he has been merely the Yoshimitsu’s “shadow” — and on the night of his master’s foretold death, Zeami declares to Yoshitsugu and others that he will remain that shadow for the rest of his life. For years after his death, Yoshimitsu remains a presence vividly alive to Zeami, who also feels a bond to the dead ruler through his son, Yoshitsugu.

Zeami’s uncompromising personality brings trouble upon his family and on the beautiful Kuzuno (Shinobu Terajima), the former mistress of Yoshimitsu, now serving Yoshimochi. Kuzuno is deeply in love with Zeami, but full of an obscure resentment Zeami turns down her pleas for love, even though he too loves her. Zeami also refuses to help Yoshitsugu with his plot to overthrow Yoshimochi, and the ambitious brother dies in his attempt to seize power.

After Yoshimochi’s death in 1428, Zeami’s 66th year, the dramatist’s situation takes a turn for the worse because the new shogun, Yoshinori, is partial to Zeami’s nephew Kanze Motoshige, known as On’ami (Keisuke Ishida). A few years later, Zeami is forced by Yoshinori to give his title as the head of the Kanze group of noh actors to On’ami, and shortly thereafter he is exiled to Sado Island on unspecified charges.

In the moving final act, the elderly Zeami is deserted by his two sons, both of whom he has trained as noh actors. The older son, Motomasa (Kazuhiro Yamaji), has decided to become a samurai and die in battle, whereas the younger, Motoyoshi (Ikuji Nakamura), wants to become a Buddhist monk. Motomasa urges Zeami to abandon noh and take up farming; and Motoyoshi tells the old man that he has become tired of his father’s plays. Zeami is left alone with no company but his wife, Tsubaki (Akiko Kurano), whom he has neglected for more than 40 years.

The tension of watching this gripping yet depressing story progress is relieved by a lively epilogue that takes place during the August Bon festival. Before being led away to exile, Zeami finds On’ami in the dancing crowds, and tells him that he has entrusted the acting manual known as “Fushi Kaden (Records of Elegant Forms and Flowers),” coveted by On’ami, to his son-in-law Konparu Zenchiku.

Zeami adds, laughing dryly, that the “Kaden” is a trap he is setting for future actors: If actors adhere to its instructions too meticulously, their performances will be superficial; and yet if some are brave enough to ignore the “Kaden,” they will violate the proper forms (kata). The “Fushi Kaden,” declares Zeami, will stand untouched by the passing of time, an eternal legacy of his fighting spirit.

This play about plays revels in its theatricality. For example, we see before our eyes oral transmission in action: A delightful, simple song is passed down through three generations, sung by a shirabyoshi (itinerant priestess) named Hagi in Act I, then by her daughter Kikyo in Act III and her granddaughter, Kaede, in the epilogue. All three roles are capably performed by Yuko Miyamoto, a talented actress best known for her performances in musicals.

It is Bando Mitsugoro, though, who holds the audience’s attention unbroken for nearly three hours. His impassioned performance lays bare Zeami’s endless struggle with his powerful patron and the actor admits to feeling “completely drained” by the end of each show.

Mitsugoro seems truly possessed by the spirit of Zeami, a man himself possessed by the ever-present “shadow” of Yoshimitsu and the art form he helped to create.

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