Ascent to Greatness

Kan’ami and Zeami developed Sarugaku into a highly artistic performing art.

Four Sarugaku Troupes and Kan’ami

“Nara mizuya noh zu”

Image of Takigi Noh (Noh performed on outdoor torch-lit stages) at Kohfukuji Temple. Sarugaku based on the Four Sarugaku Troupes is being performed.
“Nara mizuya noh zu”
(Eisei-Bunko Museum collection)

Of the Sarugaku troupes, the four troupes based in Yamato no Kuni (present-day Nara Prefecture) engaged in prolific activities in particular, and they appear to be linked to the current schools of Noh. Kan’ami (1333–1384) was the head of one of these Sarugaku troupes in the Muromachi period (14th to 16th centuries). Kan’ami not only gained popularity as an outstanding actor; he also actively incorporated Dengaku’s song and dance elements into Sarugaku, as well as the features of other performing arts that were popular at the time. Along with his son Zeami, the two of them turned the subsequent Noh into great success.

Zeami and Muromachi Shogunate

“Nikyoku santai ningyozu” Tennyomai

The image above is a transcribed Zeami's Noh dictionary by Konparu Zenchiku.
“Nikyoku santai ningyozu” Tennyomai
(The Nogami Memorial Noh Theatre Research Institute of Hosei University collection)

Fond of performing arts, the third shogun of the Muromachi shogunate, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, watched a performance of Sarugaku of Kan’ami and Zeami, who was still 12 years old. Yoshimitsu took a great liking for the performances of this father-son pair and offered generous patronage to the two. From around this time, shoguns and the aristocracy became enthusiastic fans of Sarugaku and Dengaku--performing arts for the masses performed at temple and shrine festivals. To be able to answer to their appreciation for the arts, Zeami became highly cultured in subjects such as classical literature and incorporated graceful and elegant performance styles into Sarugaku. He created the dramatic performing art of Noh centered around beautiful songs and dances, and authored numerous treatises on art including Fushi Kaden (The Transmission of the Flower and Style). In parallel with Noh’s evolvement Kyogen developed as a form of spoken comedy that induces laughter. Kyogen was included into the repertoire of Noh troupes and came to be performed alternately with Noh.

Succession and Spread of Noh

Nephew On’ami and son-in-law Konparu Zenchiku were among Zeami’s successors who were active in the Noh world. On’ami is said to have possessed remarkable acting skills that surpassed Zeami’s, while Konparu Zenchiku was a talented dramatist and theorist. In the years that followed, intense civil wars such as the Onin War (1467-1477) involving a shogun family and other samurai caused Japan to fall into ruin, resulting in Sarugaku troupes losing the patronage of the shogunate, temples and shrines. Nevertheless, Noh gained popularity among the general public, and this gave rise to lively and easy-to-understand Noh styles. Vocal music referred to as “utai,” or the chanting of Noh verses called “Yokyoku” to music, also came to be appreciated by people of a broad range of classes.

Chant Books “Sakuragawa”
Muromachi period
(National Noh Theatre collection)