Article abstract: A great actor and a great dramatist, Zeami was also an outstanding teacher of acting and a theoretician of theatrical aesthetics. He established the No (sarugaku) form of drama, which has survived to modern times.
Little is known of Zeami Motokiyo’s birth and early life. His great-grandfather was the lay priest Keishin, Kamajima Kagemori, the lord of the fief of Asada in Iga Province. Zeami was the son of Kan’ami, an actor, playwright, teacher, and leader of the Yamato sarugaku troupe. His mother was Yasaburō Ukikujo, the daughter of a priest who was the lord of the fief of Obata. At a tender age, Zeami was put into the hands of Yasburō Katsukiyo, the leader of the Konparu troupe, to be trained as an actor.
During the late 1360’s and early 1370’s, Kan’ami’s genius began to be recognized, and he and his troupe became very popular in Kyoto and its environs. Soon Zeami was acting on the stage with his father, and the precocious youngster was attracting unusual attention. In 1374, the troupe gave a performance at the Daigoji Buddhist temple, southeast of the capital, that was witnessed by Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358-1408), who had become the shogun (generalissimo, or military dictator) at the age of ten. Almost seventeen years old and already an important patron of the arts, Yoshimitsu was amazed and enchanted by the beauty, charm, and talent of the eleven-year-old Zeami. As a result, the shogun became Zeami’s patron, as well as his friend and companion.
Yoshimitsu’s affection for Zeami was so openly displayed that some of the court nobility (kuge) were annoyed. They were particularly critical of the military nobility (daimyo) for trying to please the shogun by giving expensive presents to Zeami. Their objection to the intimate relationship between Yoshimitsu and the boy actor was not, as one might suppose, to any homoerotic possibilities in it but simply to Zeami’s low-class status as a commoner and an actor.
Ironically, Zeami was actually the descendant of feudal lords of the Ōta clan and of royal blood. This family of daimyo had descended from Minamoto Yorimasa (1106-1180), who was famous both as a poet and as a warrior. The Minamoto branch had descended from Sadazumi-shinno (874-916), the son of the emperor Seiwa. It had produced the three shogun families of Minamoto, Ashikaga, and Tokugawa. Kan’ami, however, had deliberately kept his family line secret from Ashikaga Yoshimitsu when he had founded his sarugaku dramatic troupe.
At least one old aristocrat was not repelled by the mixing of social classes at the court: the poet Nijō Yoshimoto, who proved an enthusiastic admirer of the young actor. A letter exists in which Yoshimoto expresses his delight in the company of Zeami, referring to him, however, 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 court kickball [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.
In the same year (1378), the retired emperor Sukō, who had reigned at Kyoto from 1349 to 1352, was informed of a renga session held at Yoshimoto’s residence in which Zeami was a participant. As host, Yoshimoto would produce the first two lines of a proposed five-line poem. As guest, Zeami was obliged to produce the final three lines and link them to the first two. The emperor recorded his opinion of Zeami’s skill in his diary, stating that the boy’s linkages were “inspired” and copying a pair of the poems the two composed as examples. However inspired Zeami’s linkages may have been, they show that he understood thoroughly the rules for renga compositions and sought to adhere strictly to them. This contest between a common teenager and a senior court noble required much self-confidence and poise on Zeami’s part.
In 1384, Kan’ami died at the age of fifty-one. Zeami, who was then twenty-one, was obliged to assume the responsibility of the leadership of the Kanze troupe.
As leader of the Kanze sarugaku troupe, Zeami proved highly successful. Although he lost an important supporter with the death of Yoshimoto in 1388, he retained the patronage of Yoshimitsu. The first documented reference to Zeami—he was then known as Kanze Saburo—as an adult performer occurred in 1394, when it was said that he gave a performance during Yoshimitsu’s pilgrimage to Nara. In 1399, he gave two performances, both witnessed by Yoshimitsu. From 1400 to 1402, Zeami wrote his first treatise on the aesthetics of the Nō, Fūshikaden (also known as Kadensho; English translation, 1968), which purported to transmit the teachings of his father. In this work, he introduced the concept of ka, or hana, literally meaning “flower.” In his aesthetics, however, the symbol of the flower referred to the freshness and charm evoked by the actor’s performance. Zeami followed the lead of Kan’ami, who had chosen his stage name by selecting the first character of the name of the bodhisattva Kanzeon. Zeami selected the second character of the same name. The sound of this character was unvoiced as “se,” but, according to tradition, Yoshimitsu advised Zeami to voice the sound as “ze”; therefore, his name became “Zeami,” instead of “Seami.”
Yoshimitsu had abdicated the shogunate in 1395 in favor of his son Yoshimochi, who was then nine years old. Nevertheless, he continued to rule under the title of prime minister. Even when a year or so later he had his head shaved and became a bonze at Toji-in, a Buddhist temple of the Shingon sect, he still ruled from the splendid palace at Kitayama, which the people called Kinkakuji, or Golden Temple. During an emperor’s visit there in 1408, a sarugaku performance was given in which the Kanze troupe no doubt took part. Not long after this performance, Yoshimitsu died (1408), at the age of fifty. Thus Zeami lost the powerful ruler who had been his friend and patron for so long.
Although Zeami faced competition for the shogun’s favor from other acting troupes, he and his Kanze players fared well during most of Yoshimochi’s rule (1408-1428). In 1422, at the age of fifty-nine, Zeami retired as leader of the Kanze troupe. He immediately took Sōtō Zen vows to become a lay Buddhist priest. His gifted son Kanze Motomasa succeeded his father as the leader of the Kanze troupe. At this time, also, Konparu Zenchiku (1405-1468) must have married one of Zeami’s daughters. Actor, playwright, and critic, he was to become a model son-in-law to the aging Zeami. It should be recalled that Zeami had a connection with the Konparu troupe as a young child, a tie which no doubt accounted for his daughter’s marriage to Zenchiku.
Upon the death of Yoshimochi, his brother Yoshinori was chosen to succeed him. With the advent of Yoshinori’s shogunate, Zeami and his sons began to be treated badly. In 1429, Yoshinori sponsored a grand sarugaku performance at the Kasakake Riding Grounds. Two Kanze troupes participated in this competition against two other troupes. This performance was odd in that it was done in the style of Tōnomine, the mounted characters riding live horses and wearing real armor. Motomasa and Zeami in some way displeased and angered Yoshinori. Not long afterward, the shogun retaliated. He ordered that both of them be excluded from the Sentō Imperial Palace, which was the residence of the retired emperor. No sooner had they been banned from the palace than Onnami, the son of Zeami’s brother Shirō, began to perform there. Further, in 1430, Motomasa had the musical directorship at the Kiyotaki shrine taken from him. It was then conferred on Onnami. Motomasa was now...
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