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  • Date: 1423
  • Author: Zeami
  • Japanese: 三道 (sandou)

Sandô ("Three Paths") is a text on Noh playwriting composed in 1423 by Zeami Motokiyo as a secret transmission of the art for his second son Kanze Motoyoshi.[1] It is among his more prominent writings, and his only text explicitly devoted to the topic of playwriting.

The text is divided into three sections:

  1. The Three Paths (sandô), including an introduction, and discussion of the techniques of material (shu, 種), structure (saku), and writing (sho).
  2. The Three Styles (santai), including discussions of the venerable style (rôtai), feminine style (nyotai), and martial style (guntai).
  3. Miscellaneous, including the role of the hôka entertainer, the role of the demon, the ear- and eye-opening, Noh plays for young actors, revision of plays, and the centrality of yûgen.

Three Paths

In the Three Paths, Zeami discusses three key aspects of playwriting, advising the playwright to follow these three steps or stages in composing a new play. First, Zeami advises, the playwright should begin by considering the types of characters that make for the best Noh pieces, selecting his character(s), and considering the "seed" of the play. Second, the playwright should consider the rhythmic and narrative aspects of the structure of the plot, and organize it according to a five dan (five section) structure, in accordance with the principle of jo-ha-kyû. Finally, the playwright can begin writing the play itself, including the lines to be chanted onstage, melodies, and movements (stage directions).

Shelley Fenno Quinn translates the first of the three "paths," shu, as "material," but points out the character more literally means "seed" or "kernel." In this section, Zeami suggests that since a shite actor's performance consists chiefly of song/chant (utai) and dance (mai), a shite role inclined towards literary qualities is ideal for making it easier for the actor to achieve an effect of grace and yûgen. To that end, he suggests four categories of ideal figures: hôka entertainers, kagura performers, and men and women associated with the arts.

The second of the three "paths" is structure, or saku. In this section, Zeami discusses the organization of a play in terms of overall rhythm and pacing, and use of vocal and dance elements. He describes a five-step development process for organizing plays based on the fundamental principle of jo-ha-kyû, outlining his ideal structure of a five-dan (five part) Noh play.[2] He also emphasizes that a playwright must not only take jo-ha-kyû as a guideline for his own organization of the play, but must also take care to design a play such that the performers can employ the principle in their performance.

The third of the three "paths" is writing, or sho. In this section, Zeami discusses the composition of the play itself, with a particular focus on the language used. He writes about drawing plays from various established stories or sources (honsetsu), and the value of poetic allusion, drawing upon famous poems of the past through a technique known as honkadori (lit. "taking the original poem"). While Noh plays will sometimes include entire poems, or lines from poems, recited just as in the original, more commonly, they allude to famous poems through familiar referents and similar poetic structure. For example, the play Takasago opens with a chant mentioning the placename Takasago, spring, dusk, a bell, and a hill, alluding to a poem by Ôe no Masafusa which mentions Takasago, a bell, a hill, dawn, and frost.[3] Zeami is careful to point out, too, that important lines, including references to well-known verses, should be given to the shite, rather than being uttered by the waki. This not only serves Noh's philosophy as a theater form in privileging the lead actor, but makes sense within most plays as well, since the waki character is typically a simple monk, traveler, or farmer, while the shite character is often an artistically and literarily inclined figure, such as an aristocrat or god, and quite often one with a strong connection to the setting and to poems and stories about that location.

As for honsetsu, and the choice of themes to adapt into a play, Zeami cites five ideal themes: auspiciousness (shûgen), yûgen, love, personal grievance, and desolation.

Three Styles

Here, Zeami discusses three basic styles of representation. He uses the play Takasago as his model for discussing the venerable style (rôtai), cites plays in which the protagonist is the ghost of a warrior as the ideal examples of plays in the martial style (guntai), and suggests that plays featuring the ghosts of aristocratic women, such as the characters Yûgao, Ukifune, and Lady Rokujô from the Tale of Genji, as the paragon of plays in the feminine style (nyotai).


Among the miscellaneous topics Zeami introduces or discusses in the third portion of the Sandô are the role of the hôka entertainer, the role of the demon, the ear- and eye-opening, Noh plays for young actors, revision of plays, and the centrality of yûgen.

The ear-opening (kaimon) and eye-opening (kaigen) are two climatic moments which should occur within each play, in which the audience member experiences a particularly powerful aural or visual impression, respectively. The two can occur in greatly differing points in differing plays, and are not limited to particular portions of the narrative or dramatic structure. However, Zeami asserts that the ear-opening, which comes as the result of the accumulation of story, poetry, and chanting over the course of the play, building up to a peak experience of appreciation or enjoyment, should always precede the eye-opening, which is the spectator being moved, impressed, or awed by the visual spectacle of the play, typically during the dance of the play's ending section.


  • Shelley Fenno Quinn, Developing Zeami, University of Hawaii Press (2005), 115-146.
  1. Thomas Hare, Zeami Performance Notes, Columbia University Press (2008), 151.
  2. This is discussed further in the article on jo-ha-kyû, and in the main article on Noh.
  3. Quinn, Developing Zeami, 139.