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  • Japanese: 曲舞 (kusemai)

Kusemai was a medieval Japanese art-form believed to consist chiefly of narrative chanting (kuse), accompanied by dance (mai). The chanting generally took the form of prose, in contrast to the poetic form of Noh plays which would develop later, and featured epic qualities. The focus in the art form was on voice and text, with dance elements being relatively sparse and secondary.[1]

It is unclear when kusemai emerged as an art form, though the earliest known references to it date to the mid-14th century. The form is believed to have drawn upon the Heian period court traditions of shirabyôshi dance, which featured women often costumed as men, often employing the same costume as the shirabyôshi - hakama, eboshi, and suikan (a wide-sleeved overrobe), with a folding fan in one hand, and kotsuzumi (shoulder drum) held or played by the other. Dancers of kusemai initially included both men and women, but over time the women came to dominate the form.

Though originally a separate performance art, kusemai was incorporated by Kan'ami in the late 14th century into Yamato sarugaku, the art form which would later develop into Noh theatre. In doing so, Kan'ami not only introduced specific stylistic elements of chant and dance from kusemai into sarugaku, but also set the stage for the development of more extended narratives in sarugaku, which had previously focused on simpler plot set-ups and dances. He also combined elements of kusemai music with elements of kouta, the musical form native to the Yamato sarugaku tradition, producing a softer form of kusemai music which came to be known as kouta bushi kusemai. Sarugaku performers also came to perform kusemai pieces independently, as kusemai.

Much of what is known today about kusemai comes from the writings of Zeami, Kan'ami's son, the most prominent theorist and playwright of Noh. According to Zeami, in his time, professional kusemai dancers were divided chiefly into five groups: the Kamidô, Shimodô, Nishino-take, Tenjiku, and Kagajo. The members of this last group claimed a direct master-student lineage tracing back to the dancer Hyakuman. Kan'ami studied with members of this last group, who Zeami identifies as the last surviving bearers of the tradition, and as the style of kusemai performed on floats during the Gion Festival. As represented in Noh, Yamanba is also a kusemai dancer.[2] In incorporating elements of kusemai into Noh, Zeami contrasts it with the "plain chanting" (tada utai) native to his own sarugaku tradition, writing that where kusemai chanting stresses rhythm, sarugaku chanting (tada utai) places primary emphasis on the qualities of the voice.

Selected Pieces


  • Shelley Fenno Quinn, Developing Zeami, University of Hawaii Press (2005), 55-56, 133-134.
  1. Quinn, 59.
  2. Thomas Hare, Zeami Performance Notes, Columbia University Press (2008), 157n16.