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  • Born: 1363
  • Died: 1443
  • Other Names: 観世元清 (Kanze Motokiyo), 元清 (Hata no Motokiyo)
  • Japanese: 世阿弥 (Zeami)

Zeami was an actor, troupe leader, playwright and theatre theorist, generally considered the founder of Noh drama. He is considered the original author of many plays prominent in the Noh repertoire, as well as several secret treatises on performance, in which he articulates numerous concepts later incorporated into kabuki, jôruri puppet theatre, and other art forms, including the concept of jo-ha-kyû, and that of "the flower," an almost indefinable quality which marks the greatest of performances, and which is that which captures the audience's interest.[1]


Zeami was born Hata no Motokiyo, the son of performer Kan'ami, with whom he was invited at a young age to become a court performer in service to Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. While at the shogun's court, and charged with organizing entertainments, Motokiyo and his father developed rural dances known as sarugaku into the beginnings of what is now known as Noh theatre or Noh drama. There would eventually develop five orthodox schools of Noh performance, with the Kanze school claiming the most direct connection to Zeami, and claiming Kan'ami as its first head.

Upon his father's death in 1384, Zeami succeeded him, becoming the second head of the Kanze school. With the monetary wellbeing of the troupe now in his hands, Zeami took steps to adapt the style of his more provincial Yamato-based troupe, to better compete with those situated closer to the capital (Kyoto) and closer to Kyoto tastes. His own Yamato style, as passed down from his father, took the portrayal of women and of demons, and the techniques of monomane (imitation) more generally, as its greatest strengths, for example, but these were precisely the things which were not much appreciated by more sophisticated Kyoto audiences. Zeami attempted to resolve this by adopting elements of other art forms, including chiefly kusemai, and the Ômi troupes' emphasis on cultivating an aesthetic mood of yûgen (mysterious beauty), refashioning these elements as he incorporated them, so as to maintain Yamato traditions and styles of performance, while making Yamato performance more sophisticated and appealing to Kyoto audiences.[2]

Zeami began writing the earliest and today most famous of his treatises, the Fûshikaden ("Transmission of the Flower, Forms, and Style"), in 1400; much was completed within the following two years, but the latest portions of the text are dated 1418. In 1401, he took on the art-name () Zeami.

He was succeeded as head of the Kanze school in 1422 by his son, Kanze Motomasa. That same year, he took the tonsure, and began conveying his secrets to his sons more fully. In 1429, Zeami and Motomasa were meant to give a special performance for Retired Emperor Go-Komatsu, but Shogun Ashikaga Yoshinori declared the performance was not to take place.[3]

He was exiled to Sado Island in 1434, but eventually returned before dying in 1443. He was buried alongside his father at Shinju-an, a sub-temple within the compound of Daitoku-ji, in northern central Kyoto.[4]

Most of his writings on performance were originally conceived as secret transmissions, to be treasured and guarded, and passed down only within the lineage of the Kanze school. One exception is the Shûdôsho ("Learning the Profession"), which was meant for widespread circulation from the beginning, and which was published in a popularly accessible woodblock book form in 1772 by Kanze Motoakira (1722-1774). Though some excerpts of the other texts did end up leaking out and circulating in either manuscript or published form over the centuries, it is for this reason that these works in their entireties were almost entirely unknown for hundreds of years, and were not published in anything resembling a complete form until 1909.


In his writings on performance and training, Zeami wrote chiefly for the "primary actor," what would later come to be known as the shite. In his time, in the Yamato sarugaku tradition he inherited from his father, there was already a division between those who performed primary roles, and those who performed secondary roles.[5] As is evident in his writings, many other fundamental aspects of Noh theatre were also already existent, though many were yet to be codified. Thus, the five categories of plays, and the identification of the actors or roles as shite, waki, and tsure, to name just a few examples, are not referred to explicitly as such in Zeami's writings, but rather develop out of his teachings.

Selected Works

  • Fûshikaden, also known as Kadensho (風姿花伝, "Transmission of the Flower, Forms, and Style", 1400-1418)
  • Kashû uchinuki gaki (花習内抜書, "An Extract from Learning the Flower", 1418)
  • Ongyoku kuden (音曲口伝, "Oral Instructions on Singing", 1419)
  • Shikadô (至花道, "A Course to Attain the Flower", 1420)
  • Nikyoku santai ningyôzu (二曲三体人形図, "Figure Drawings of the Two Arts and the Three Modes", 1421)
  • Sandô (三道, "The Three Paths", 1423)
  • Kakyô (花鏡, "A Mirror to the Flower", 1424)
  • Rikugi (六義, "Six Models", 1428)
  • Jûgyoku tokka (拾玉得花, "Pick Up a Jewel and Take the Flower in Hand", 1428), composed for his son-in-law, Komparu Zenchiku[6]
  • Shûdôsho (摺動書, "Learning the Profession", 1430/3)
  • Museki isshi (夢跡一紙, "Traces of a Dream on a Single Sheet, 1432/9)
  • Kyaku raika (却来花, "The Flower... Doubling Back", 1433/3)
  • Sarugaku Dangi (申楽談義, "Conversations on Sarugaku")
  • Fushi zuke shidai (曲付次第, "Technical Specifications for Setting a Melody", undated)
  • Fûkyokushû (風曲集, "A Collection of Jewels in Effect", undated)
  • Yûgaku shûdô fûken (遊楽習道風見, "An Effective Vision of Learning the Vocation of Fine Play in Performance", undated)
  • Five Ranks (五位, undated)
  • Nine Ranks (九位, undated)
  • Goin (五音, "Five Sorts of Singing", undated)
  • Goinkyoku jôjô (五音曲条々, "Articles on the Five Sorts of Singing", undated)



  • Thomas Hare, Zeami Performance Notes, Columbia University Press, 2008.
  • Thomas Rimer and Yamazaki Masakazu trans. (1984). On the Art of the Nō Drama: The Major Treatises of Zeami. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
  • Shelley Fenno Quinn. "How to write a Noh play - Zeami's Sandō." Monumenta Nipponica 48:1 (Spring 1993). pp58-62.
  • Shelley Fenno Quinn, Developing Zeami, University of Hawaii Press (2005).
  1. Hare, 6.
  2. Hare, 10., Quinn, Developing Zeami, 49, 54.
  3. Hare, 175.
  4. Kindai kabuki nenpyô kyôto-hen 近代歌舞伎年表京都篇, National Theatre of Japan (2004), 714.
  5. Quinn, Developing Zeami, 131.
  6. Quinn, Developing Zeami, 75.