YAOI, M/M ROMANCE AND THE HISTORY OF THE BISHOUNEN
While researching my yaoi romance novel, Dojo Boys: Dragon & Crow, I was as astounded at the depth of history relating to romanticized sex between males, which led to Japan’s current yaoi empire.
I was also struck by how the development of yaoi and male-male romance in the East and West appeared to reflect the liberation of women in both cultures. What is now a rapidly growing group of females who read, write and relish in romantic tales of homoerotic sex between men, may in fact have started as women’s quiet rebellion against each society’s antiquated ideals of females.
The Japanese history of the bishōunen and of romanticized sex between men who are not necessarily homosexual is vast and I’ll be sharing some of what I learned through a series of posts. I hope you’ll join me on this fascinating journey.
Noh, Japan’s traditional, classical dance theatre might have never developed into the refined art of dramatic theater of today were it not for an infamous young shogun becoming enamored with a gifted, adolescent bishounen dancer called Zeami.
Kan’ami was a talented actor, playwright and musician who formed a sarugaku troupe, in Yamato in the early 1360’s. Sarugaku literally means "monkey fun" and the word and the theatre were based on sangaku, a form of entertainment, involving acrobatics, juggling, pantomime and drum dancing, which had been imported from China in the eighth century. As a young child, Kan’ami’s son, Zeami had revealed himself to be extremely talented performer and was soon acting on the stage with his father, and attracting much acclaim. Performances of sarugaku were popular with the peasants of the countryside, but as word of Kan’ami’s talented troupe spread, they were called to perform and compete in Kyoto, the then capital of Japan.
In 1374, the troupe gave a performance at Kyoto’s Daigoji Buddhist temple where the eleven-year-old Zeami performed the role of Senzai, a part generally reserved for the handsomest member of a troupe since it is danced without a mask. Seventeen-year-old Shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu was in attendance and was entranced by Zeami’s performance.
Yoshimitsu had become the shogun at the age of ten and was already considered a great man. He’d unified Japan after a bitter sixty-four year division. By all reports, he was an accomplished poet, a martial strategist, and had a great passion for the nuances of theater and all things Chinese. It is also said that he had fairly eccentric taste in clothing and was prone to create a stir by his flair for theatric expression.
Politically powerful and an important patron of the arts, Yoshimitsu was enchanted by the beauty, charm, and talent of Zeami and equally impressed by the troupe. He shortly became the patron of both Kan’ami and Zeami and much in the way of the shūdo practice of the samurai … took Zeami as his lover.
Under the shogun’s patronage sarugaku became associated with the upper class. With the backing of the nobles, sarugaku was able to abandon the crude realism demanded by its provincial audiences in favor of the poetic beauty appreciated by the court and the path to Noh was firmly established.
Becoming Yoshimitsu’s lover came with great perks. Zeami was provided with a classical education and was taught Literature, Poetry, and Philosophy. This type of education was very unusual for an actor; due to their lower-class backgrounds, actors received little education. Zeami’s beauty and intelligence were reportedly impressive and Yoshimitsu’s affection for him was so openly displayed that some court nobles expressed their displeasure. Not because their shogun had taken a young boy for lover, but because the boy was from such a lower class.
The renowned poet Nijō Yoshimoto, who was to become Zeami’s principal teacher, proved an enthusiastic admirer of the young actor and defended the shogun’s choice on the grounds that Zeami was uncommonly beautiful, stating:
“When he dances he is more beautiful than all the flowers of the seven autumn grasses soaked with the evening dew. I should compare him to a profusion of cherry or pear blossoms in the haze of a spring dawn; this is how he captivates, with the blossoming of his appearance.”
A letter exists in which Yoshimoto expresses his delight in the company of Zeami, referring to him by the name “Fujiwaka,” which had been conferred on him by Yoshimoto himself:
“Should Fujiwaka have time, please bring him over with you once again. The entire day was wonderful, and I quite lost my heart. A boy like this is rare—why look at his renga and kemari, not to mention his own particular art! Such a charming manner and such poise! I don’t know where such a marvelous boy can have come from.”
Fujiwaka means wisteria river, which I take to mean Yoshimoto felt that Zeami’s beauty, charm and intelligence were enduring like that flowering plant. Renga is the simple-complex poetry form that became the basis for modern haiku, at which it seems Zeami was quite clever. Since the object of kemari, a type of kickball that was played at court, is to keep the ball in the air—Zeami must have been agile and quite the acrobat.
All of these traits fit the romantic vision of the bishounen, no? One thing for certain, Zeami possessed a sharp, inquisitive intelligence and a brilliant ability to express and teach the nuance of emotion. That much can be seen in overwhelming number of plays and the texts he left scripted, which are still performed and serve as the foundation of modern Noh theatre.
Next post: THE KABUKI ACTOR AND HIS PATRON Were kabuki actors, male prostitutes or something more?
Alex A. Akira is the author of the yaoi romance series Dojo Boys, racy tales of young, male martial artists navigating some unorthodox and adventurous paths to find love. The prequel of the e-book series, The First Misunderstanding and the first two-volume box set of Dragon and Crow are available at Amazon.com.