Zeami Motokiyo

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Noh play at Itsukushima Shrine

Zeami Motokiyo (世阿弥 元清; c. 1363 – c. 1443), also called Kanze Motokiyo (観世 元清), was a Japanese aesthetician, actor and playwright. At the age of 12 he attracted the attention of Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu during a stage performance. Under the patronage of Ashikaga, Zeami and his father Kan’ami refined Sarugaku performance (a combination of pantomime and vocal acrobatics) into Noh theater, performed at temples and shrines to make audiences reflect on Buddhist principles and the transience of life. At the age of 70 he was exiled by a later shogun to a remote island because he opposed the shogun’s choice of a leader for the Kanze school of Noh.

Zeami wrote more than 50 plays for the Noh theater, as well as Fūshi kaden, a book of instruction for Noh actors that is considered a poetic aesthetic treatise and a manual for life as well as acting. The book is written as a dictation from his father Kan’ami, whom Zeami considered a consummate actor.


Zeami was born around 1363, the son of 31-year-old Kan'ami, a famous Japanese Noh actor, playwright, musician, and founder of the Sarugaku theater group. From evidence in a recently discovered document, scholars have surmised that Zeami’s mother may have been “the daughter of Nagatomi Saemon-rokuro in Harima domain.” Although Kan’ami’s troupe was under the protection of Kofuku-ji, a Buddhist temple in the city of Nara, he began making trips to Kyoto to give performances there. Through performances he gave for seven days in the Shingon Buddhist Daigo-ji in Kyoto, Kan’ami’s name became widely known. Zeami was educated by his father, and from childhood Zeami participated in his acting troupe. Together, the father-son team established the Noh theatre.

When Kan'ami's company performed Sarugaku for Ashikaga Yoshimitsu—the third shogun of Japan, at Imagumano in 1374 or 1375—he saw 12-year-old Zeami appear on the stage, and offered him an education in the arts at his court. After that, Ashikaga became the patron of Kan’ami and Zeami. In 1378 at the Gionkai Shinto festival, court nobles criticized Zeami for sitting too close to Shogun Yoshimitsu’s seat. However, Zeami had a rival named Inuodo-ami, the leader of Omi-Sarugaku, who was more favored by Shogun Yoshimitsu than he was. Inuodo-ami played a key part in the Kyoto Sarugaku world of Kitayama Bunka (“culture of the Northern Mountain”). Sarugaku, a mixture of pantomime and vocal acrobatics, was the predecessor of Noh drama.

Kan’ami died in 1384 and Zeami succeeded to his father’s position as Kanze-dayu. He continued to perform and adapt his style into what is today called Noh theater. Zeami’s Noh plays took the audience into a world of subtle, echoing feeling called Yugen. The aristocratic samurai placed a great value on Yugen as an aspect of culture. Although Sarugaku performers were generally uneducated, Zeami acquired some knowledge of culture from the shogun’s court and his association with aristocrats. Zeami’s Noh dramas and his theory of art were influenced by Renga poetry, which he learned from the regent Nijo Yoshimoto.

After the death of the third shogun, Yoshimitsu, the fourth shogun Ashikaga Yoshimochi favored Dengaku more than Sarugaku, and disliked Kitayama Bunka (“culture of the Northern Mountain”) because it overemphasized splendor and ornateness. Dengaku were rustic Japanese harvest celebrations, consisting mostly of dances performed by villagers at the rice planting celebrations, either at the new year or during the planting season in early summer. During the fourteenth century these harvest dances were brought into the cities and incorporated into Noh theater.

Although Zeami received less favor from the fourth shogun than he had from the third shogun, he refined Sarugaku and wrote Fūshi kaden (“The Book of the Flower”), a manual for Noh actors that is still used as a reference.

During the reign of the sixth shogun, Ashikaga Yoshinori, Zeami began to suffer persecution. It is said that before becoming the sixth shogun, Yoshinori, who had a strong and arrogant nature, had been ignored by the court because he was the third son and was never expected to succeed to the throne. He had been sent to live his life as a monk, but after the early death of the fifth shogun, he was selected to take his place. During this dark and difficult period of his life, he had come to favor the performances of Onami, the son of Zeami’s younger brother. In 1422 Zeami passed the position of Kanze- dayu (leader of the Kanze school of Noh) on to his son Motomasa, and renounced the world.

Shogun Ashikaga Yoshinori, however, continued to prefer Onami’s performance, so he gave Onami the authority to perform Sarugaku in Daigo- ji. In 1432, after the sudden death of Motomasa, the position of Kanze- dayu was given to Onami. Zeami opposed this appointment and was exiled to Sado Island in 1434. In 1436, on Sado Island, Zeami wrote small book of Noh chants, but after that nothing more was heard of him. In the book, Zeami wrote that he had arrived on the island two years before, alone at the age of 72.

Fūshi kaden

Scholars attribute nearly fifty plays to Zeami. Among them are the works Izutsu, Hagoromo (“The Feather Mantle”), Koi no omoni (“The Burden of Love”) and Takasago. In addition to writing plays and his major theoretical work, Fūshi kaden (風姿花伝, also known as Kadensho, 花伝書), Zeami also wrote practical instructions for actors and established the Noh theatre as a serious art form. His books are not only instructional manuals but also aesthetic treatises based on the spiritual culture of Japan.

Fūshi kaden can be roughly translated as “Floral Message: How Does the Wind Look?” The connotation is that an actor needs to have sophisticated (flowery) skills, but the technique must not be ostentatious (it must be transparent).

Zeami’s theory of art is unusual. In Europe a treatise like Fūshi kaden would be characterized as poetry. Fūshi kaden was written between 1400 and 1418. The theory of Fūshi kaden was unique because it was not speaking of concrete visual art like architecture or painting, but was an essay on art expressed through the movements of man and kokoro (heart, emotion, attitude) in live performances. The sentences of the essay resemble the way a musical score captures detailed directions on paper for how the music is supposed to sound.

In Fūshi kaden, Zeami expressed his thoughts on the essence of art, writing from the viewpoint of one who had reached the ultimate culmination of the art of acting, his father Kan’ami. It described the world as seen through the eyes of a Tatsujin (a virtuoso). The word Tatsujin in the introduction of Fūshi kaden refers to an ultimate professional who has gone beyond being a Meijin (master). Kan’ami and Zeami both aimed to reach the level of Tatsujin, and Zeami saw his father Kan’ami as a model Tatsujin.

Fūshi kaden was an edited version of Kan’ami’s dictation to his son Zeami, before he lost his memories of performance. Zeami incorporated his philosophy on the art of life, “the way,” into his instructions on how to approach the art of acting. The principles of Noh echoed the principles of Buddhism and the martial arts. For two hundred years, Fūshi kaden was a secret and much sought-after textbook on aesthetics and the art of acting, available only to Noh actors and the samurai class. It is still studied by young Noh artists today.

For a long time, the existence of the work was unknown. Yasuda Zenjiro (1879-1936), the heir of the wealthy Yasuda family, maintained the Yasuda Library, which contained rare literature and Kabuki and Noh books of the Edo period. In 1908, Yoshida Togo, a scholar of national history, found Zeami’s books in the Yasuda Library, and the next year he published the sixteen volumes of Zeami’s works. Fūshi kaden had been bequeathed to the head of the school of Kanze (観世) Noh players as oral instructions on the mysteries of the art. There are five extant schools of Noh acting, Kanze (観世), Hosho (宝生), Kompaku (金春), Kita (喜多) and Kongo (金剛). Among them, Kanze, founded by Kan’ami, was the largest and most famous school of Noh.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

Primary sources

  • Zeami and William Scott Wilson (trans.). The Flowering Spirit: Classic Teachings on the Art of Nō. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2006. ISBN 4770024991

Secondary sources

  • Albery, Noboku. The Hose of Kanze. New York: Simon And Schuster, 1985.
  • Hare, Thomas Blenman. Zeami's Style: The Noh Plays of Zeami Motokiyo. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996.
  • Nogami, Toyoichiro. Zeami And His Theories On Noh. Hinoki Shoten, 1955.
  • Quinn, Shelley Fenno. Developing Zeami: The Noh Actor's Attunement in Practice. University of Hawaii Press, 2005.
  • Rimer, J. T. and Yamazaki, M. (ed.). On the Art of the Noh Drama: The Major Treatises of Zeami. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984.

External links

All links retrieved June 13, 2023.


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