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Noh Mask
Noh Theater Performer's Mask





  Japanese Romance

A Book Review of The House of Kanze, by Nobuku Albery
 by Hakim Bey

Traditional Noh Stage SettingI'd like to draw your readers' attention to a new novel, The House of Kanze by Nobuko Albery, a historical romance about the founder of the Noh theater of Japan, Zeami, who at the age of 12 became the beloved of the Ashikaga Shogun Yoshimitsu, ruler of all 14th-century Japan.  Zeami was reputedly a most beautiful and brilliant boy actor/dancer; the Shogun was a man of incredible erudition and taste.  Their love affair lasted until Zeami's coming of age at about 17; thereafter the Shogun remained a friend and patron, thanks to whose support Zeami was able to develop and crystallize the Noh in the form it still retains.

Noh Mask of ManInterestingly, their affair shocked the Japanese aristocracy not because of its homosexuality (a more-or-less accepted part of samurai society) but because the boy was an actor, and hence untouchable.  Nobuko Albery's version of the story is well researched but structurally somewhat clunky -- at times downright amateurish -- but nevertheless highly readable.  In fact, its stylistic naivete adds to its charm.  I have often imagined to myself what the meeting of Zeami and the Shogun must have been like (in fact, the scene lies behind certain aspects of my fantasy novel Crowstone) -- and Ms Albery did not disappoint me in her handling of the encounter.  She's at her best describing the theater moments; her grasp of Noh aesthetics seems to me lacking in profundity but rich in imaginative participation.  Readers like us may have some objections to certain of her ideas about man/boy love, but on the whole, The Subject is treated with much more sympathy than any straight male author has ever attained, and in fact, the affair between Zeami and the Shogun is handled very sympathetically, and indeed, very romantically.  (It's a mystery to me why female historical novelists are so much more postive about boy-love than even most boy-lovers.  Read Mary Renault!  Read Marguerite Yourcenar!)

Noh Mask of YouthAbove all, I recommend the book as a charming evocation of what may have been the most successful man/boy affair of all history, since both lovers were people of immense genius and importance.  Those who enjoy the book will want to go on and read Zeami's own work, not only his wonderful plays (in the Arthur Waley translations) but also his Secret Flower writings, the texts in which he transmitted the inner mysteries of the art to his descendants.  Peter Brook once told me that these were the most important theoretical texts on theater ever written, and I believe him.

Among their other glories, they contain the most exalted appreciation of the genius of the young boy I've ever read.  Zeami believed in what he called "the first flower," or what Zen calls "beginner's mind.”  Zearni taught that only the old man who has attained full spiritual realization can match the innocent young boy in perfection of gesture, the elusive and elegant effortlessness of insight and expression.  We need to look beyond the confines of "Western Civilization" to broaden the scope of our definition of what a man/boy relationship can be.  I've devoted a good deal of energy to uncovering the Persian version; Zeami and the Shogun deserve more than this book and this review.

From the NAMBLA Bulletin, Vol. 8, No. 3/4, Pg. 11, Apr/May1987.
Copyright © NAMBLA, 2008

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