Zeami (Literary Criticism (1400-1800))
(Full name Kanze Motokiyo Zeami) Japanese essayist and playwright.
Zeami is considered the foremost nō dramatist and theorist, whose plays and treatises are largely responsible for transforming nō from a rustic form of entertainment into a high art. He is credited with having written 240 plays, some 100 of which still survive and are regularly performed. In addition, his treatises are regarded as a significant contribution not only to the dramatic arts but to Japanese aesthetics as a whole.
Zeami was born in Nagaoka, Yamashiro Province, the son of Kanze Kiyotsugu (known as Kan'ami), an eminent practitioner of sarugaku, as nō was then called. As a child Zeami performed in the Kanze family troupe, which his father headed. There he attracted the notice of the shōgun Ashikaga Yokumitsu and the renowned poet Nijō Yoshimoto. It is believed that through the influence of these two prominent figures Zeami received an excellent education, for his treatises demonstrate a wider knowledge of literature and philosophy than was typical of one who pursued the lowly profession of actor. Kan'ami died when his son was only twenty-two, leaving him responsible for the troupe. In 1400 Zeami began writing his first treatise, Fūshikaden (1400-c. 1406; Teachings on Style and the Flower), to preserve and pass on his father's teachings. As they had under his father, Zeami and his troupe received the patronage of Yokumitsu until the shōgun's death in 1408. Yokumitsu's successor, Yoshimochi, seems to have been indifferent to Zeami, but when he died in 1428 and his younger brother, Yoshinori, assumed power, Zeami's fortunes declined sharply. In 1432, when Zeami was seventy, his elder son, Motomasa—who had assumed leadership of the troupe a decade earlier—was killed, possibly murdered. Yoshinori made Zeami's estranged cousin, On'ami, head of the family troupe. Two years later Zeami was exiled to the island of Sado for reasons that remain unclear, but possibly because of his opposition to On'ami. After the death of Yoshinori in 1441, Zeami was pardoned, and he returned to the mainland. He died two years later.
Of the 100 surviving plays attributed to Zeami, many, such as Aoi no Ue (before 1430; The Lady Aoi), Nishikigi (before 1430; The Brocade Tree), and Takasago (before 1423) remain essential works in the nō repertory. Establishing the canon and dating of Zeami's plays has been the subject of much scholarly investigation and debate. In Zeami's period playwrights' names were not typically attached to their works, and existing records of performances often do not provide titles; moreover, revision of earlier works and collaboration were common practices. It is only through references to his plays in Zeami's own treatises—which generally can be reliably dated—that scholars can extrapolate end dates for composition for a number of plays. It is through his twenty-some treatises that Zeami's influence has perhaps been most strongly felt. These works, intended as private texts for the training of actors in the family troupe, remained secret until the early twentieth century, when they were uncovered and published. The earliest treatise, Fūshikaden (1400-c. 1406), written to preserve Zeami's father's instruction, discusses the proper training of an actor, the relationship of the actor and the audience, and the structuring of plays. It also introduces the concept of hana, the flower, a metaphor that Zeami employs throughout his writings. Throughout his numerous other treatises, Zeami provides advice to actors on proper training techniques, lessons on how to compose music, methods of recitation, and hints for playing women characters effectively.
Historians and scholars of nō theater concur that Zeami, continuing the work of his father, developed nō from a low form of popular entertainment into a brilliant art form that seamlessly combines dance, song, mime, and poetry. As demonstrated in his plays and expressed in his treatises, Zeami infused nō with religious significance derived from Zen Buddhism. Scholars note that the concept of yūgen—a complex idea that indicates beauty, grace and depth—was particularly important to Zeami. For him, yūgen was inseparable from nō and was the wellspring of its spirituality. It is this fusion of art and spirituality, critics agree, that lies at the heart of Zeami's greatness.
*Fūshikaden. 7 vols. [also known as Kadensho; Teachings on Style and the Flower] (treatises) 1400-c. 1406
Kashu [The Practice of the Flower] (treatise) 1418
Sekidera Komachi [Komachi at Sekidera] (play) before 1419
Tōru (play) before 1419
Shikadō [The True Path to the Flower] (treatise) 1420
Aridōshi (play) before 1423
Atsumori (play) before 1423
Funabashi [The Floating Bridge] (play) before 1423
Higaki [The Woman within the Cyprus Fence] (play) before 1423
Hyakuman (play) before 1423
Kayoi Komachi [Komachi and the Hundred Nights] (play) before 1423
Kiyotsune (play) before 1423
Koi no omoni [The Burden of Love] (play) before 1423
Kōya monogurui [The Madman at Kōya] (play) before 1423
Matsukaze [Pining Wind] (play) before 1423
Michimori (play) before 1423
Oimatsu [The Aged Crone] (play) before 1423
Sanemori (play) before 1423
Sotoba Komachi [Komachi on the Stupa] (play) before 1423
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SOURCE: Ueda, Makoto. “Zeami Motokiyo: Imitation, Yugen, and the Sublime.” In Zeami, Basho, Yeats, Pound: A Study in Japanese and English Poetics, pp. 11-34. London: Mouton & Co., 1965.
[In the essay below, Ueda surveys Zeami's theories on effective Nō theater.]
A certain Japanese poet, commenting on the difference between the artisan and the artist, once said that the latter always strives to explore and expand the meaning of his art while the former simply tries to fulfil the rules handed down by the tradition. Zeami Motokiyo1 was known to his contemporaries largely as a master artisan, yet we now know him as a rare artist. Born as the eldest son of a great nō performer, he followed his father's footsteps and came to achieve great fame for his acting, chanting and dancing; his contemporary audience enjoyed his art, quite possibly without knowing what lay behind it. Yet, although we now cannot in any way restore Zeami's performance, we do have a way to learn some of the ideas he conceived on the art of the nō. These are expressed in a body of his miscellaneous essays, written at various times of his career, aiming, primarily, to make practical advice on the training of actors, principles of acting, play-writing, dancing and music, and numerous other matters relating to the performance of the nō. Despite the variety of topics with which the essays deal,...
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SOURCE: Ueda, Makoto. “Zeami and the Art of the Nō Drama: Imitation, Yugen, and Sublimity.” In Japanese Aesthetics and Culture: A Reader, edited by Nancy G. Hume, pp. 177-91. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1967, Ueda describes Zeami's concepts of perfect Nō drama, including the role of the actor and the importance of music and religion.]
The aesthetics of Japanese theater reached a peak in its history with the writings of Zeami Motokiyo (1363-1443), a great actor, writer, and theorizer of the Nō drama. For one thing, the Nō was a highly refined, sophisticated art form, accepting no immature theory for itself. It had absorbed many heterogeneous elements from the outside, such as Chinese operatic drama and Japanese folk dance, Shinto rituals and Buddhist ceremonies, and popular mimetic shows and aristocratic court music, eventually integrating them all into a single, harmoniously unified art. This composite nature of the Nō placed a heavy burden on its performer, for he had to be a competent actor, singer, and dancer at the same time. Inborn gift, intensive training, and above all a never-failing passion for self-improvement were required of anyone intending to learn this art. “A man's life has an end,” Zeami has said in a typical remark, “but there is no end to the pursuit of the Nō.” Zeami's some twenty essays,...
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SOURCE: Brazell, Karen. “Zeami and Women in Love.” Literature East & West XVIII, no. 1 (March 1974): 8-18.
[In the essay which follows, Brazell summarizes Zeami's portrayal of women in his plays, arguing that because his culture lacked a single model for women, he was freer to have his female characters depict a wide range of emotions.]
One distinctive trait of Japanese Nō drama is its avoidance of highly individualized characterizations in favor of expressing powerful emotion. Hence the Nō theater relies on certain character types. In developing these types, it of course used images and ideals prevalent in the culture and in turn elaborated and influenced these ideals.
For Zeami (1363-1443), who brought Nō to perfection, and indeed for most of his contemporaries, the ideal man was a warrior who combined aesthetic sensitivity with martial valor and loyalty. By 1423, the date of his Nōsakusho (The Composition of Nō), Zeami had written at least six plays that supported and contributed to this image. The warriors he depicts are some of the most elegant in any literature; among their various concerns are poetry, music, costume, youthful beauty, and the Buddhist form of salvation. They are also fiercely concerned with matters of loyalty and defeat—and they were all defeated. The warriors Zeami actually knew, including his patron and military ruler of the country,...
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SOURCE: Mueller, Jacqueline. “The Two Shizukas: Zeami's Futari Shizuka.” Monumenta Nipponica: Studies in Japanese Culture XXXVI, no. 3 (autumn 1981): 285-98.
[In the following essay, which introduced her translation of The Two Shizukas, Mueller examines Zeami's treatment of the tragic character Shizuka in light of other depictions of this traditional figure. In this reprinting, ideographic characters have been silently deleted.]
Futari Shizuka (The Two Shizukas), by Kanze Motokiyo Zeami, 1363-1443, is a play of the third, or woman, category. Like many other works of the noh repertory, it is based on events in the war between the Minamoto and the Taira clans, 1180-1185, and its aftermath.1 The Minamoto hero, Yoshitsune, 1159-1189, flees from the forces of his half-brother, Yoritomo, 1147-1199, who suspects him of treachery. He tries to sail south from the main island of Japan, but his boat is blown back to shore. Later in his flight Yoshitsune is obliged to abandon his beloved mistress, Shizuka, at Yoshino.2 His travels finally take him to the north of Japan. At Koromogawa3 Yoshitsune is attacked by Yoritomo's forces and commits suicide after first killing his wife and children.
Although separated from Yoshitsune, Shizuka is also a fugitive, and Yoritomo intensifies his pursuit when he learns that she is carrying his...
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SOURCE: Nagatomo, Shigenori. “Zeami's Conception of Freedom.” Philosophy East and West XXXI, no. 4 (October 1981): 401-16.
[In the essay below, Nagatomo uncovers the concept of freedom implicit in Zeami's theories of disciplined dramatic training, which results in a “controlled spontaneity” of mind and action. In this reprinting, ideographic characters have been silently deleted.]
Freedom, as it has been propounded in the rich variety of theories to be found in Western philosophy, has seldom been conceived as an achieved quality of a person. In this article I would like to demonstrate that “freedom” can best be understood in this manner and that one of the most interesting expressions of this view may be found in the work of the Japanese “critic” Zeami (1363-1443), the “founder” of the aesthetics of the traditional Noh drama. Freedom, in his view—as I will reconstruct it—admits of degrees; and moreover, since it is an achieved quality, it announces a qualitative dimension of action.
Western thinking about the nature of freedom has, it seems, two basic loci or concerns which are often closely interrelated: (1) freedom as necessary for morality, and (2) freedom as the opposite of causal determination.
Aristotle, for example, says that the investigation of freedom is concerned with “studying the nature of virtue...
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SOURCE: De Poorter, Erika. “The Theoretical Writings of Zeami.” In Zeami's Talks on Sarugaku: An Annotated Translation of the Sarugaku Dangi, pp. 45-56. Amsterdam: J. C. Geiben, Publisher, 1986.
[In the excerpt below, De Poorter surveys Zeami's theoretical writings, underscoring their “hidden” or “secret” quality as texts intended for a narrow, private audience.]
Zeami began the Fūshi kaden, the first of a score of theoretical writings about Nō, in about 1400, after having already gained many years of experience as an actor, writer and director. As far as we know this was the first treatise on the art of Nō (Nōgakuron) in Japan. In a certain sense this was only natural, because Sarugaku had, after all, matured only one generation earlier to become an art form acknowledged and supported even by the shōgun.
There are probably several reasons why Zeami came to put his ideas about Nō into writing. In the first place it was part of his aim to have secret writings, such as those existing for other art forms, in his family. It is even thought that he composed his writings in order to strengthen the position of his son Motomasa, as it was customary in other arts to give secret writings to successors, even if only by way of legitimization.
Zeami himself said that he recorded one thing and another in...
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SOURCE: Ishii, Tatsuro. “Zeami's Mature Thoughts on Acting.” Theatre Research International 12, no. 2 (summer 1987): 110-23.
[In the following essay, Ishii traces the evolution of Zeami's theories on the ideal Nō performance, noting that he believed performance should try to achieve “accord with the perfect order of nature by means of lifelong training and development.”]
It is difficult to deal with all the ideas and concepts of a man whose writings span a period of some forty years and which are contained within some twenty-one essays. But the time spent on even a cursory exploration into some of the most important ideas presented in Zeami's later essays is most rewarding to anyone interested in theatre, for they are unique in pointing to the nucleus of his concepts on acting and performance based on his own experience and deep insights as a thinker, actor, director and playwright.
Of all the essays Zeami (1363-1443) has written, his earliest and best known work is that of the Kadensho. Several of the later essays, however, are just as important and even more significant in their profundity and originality. Here I shall deal with some important concepts on acting and actor training put forth in the essays written after Kadensho, from the standpoint of their relationships with corresponding ideas in Kadensho.
Zeami presents us with...
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SOURCE: Smethurst, Mae J. “The Style of Nō.” In The Artistry of Aeschylus and Zeami: A Comparative Study of Greek Tragedy and Nō, pp. 148-204. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989.
[In the following excerpt, Smethurst chronicles the extensive literary and stylistic similarities between Zeami's play Sanemori and Aeschylus's Persians.]
From the discussion of structure in the two preceding chapters, it should be apparent that, although the finales of both Aeschylus's Persians and Zeami's Sanemori feature vigorous movements and gestures, excited rhythms and music, the effective use of “literary” sources, religious formulas, emotional intensity, and the most important presentation of the main character, the finale of the Persians lacks some of the interest that an audience can derive from that of Sanemori, namely, an engrossing account of the tragic event enacted by the main character. The messenger's narrative account of the battles of Salamis and Psyttaleia in the middle of the tragedy preempts this aspect of the climax in the Persians. In addition, Zeami gains a sharper focus with his use of language. As I pointed out, when the shite says in the rongi that the deep-rooted attachment of warrior hell has again come around, and mentions in the same breath the name of Kiso, the cause of his attachment—Sanemori wanted to fight with him and not a...
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SOURCE: Thornhill III, Arthur H. “The Goddess Emerges: Shinto Paradigms in the Aesthetics of Zeami and Zenchiku.” Journal of the Association of Teachers of Japanese 24, no. 1 (April 1990): 49-59.
[In the essay below, Thornhill exposes elements of Shinto doctrines in the treatment of the sun goddess myth in works by Zeami and his successor Komparu Zenchiku.]
In recent years, scholars of Japanese literature have made ambitious attempts to redefine the medieval period. Sensing the conventional periodization, which classifies the Kamakura and Muromachi eras as medieval, to be ultimately based on events of political rather than cultural history, they propose new divisions. For example, Konishi Jin'ichi defines chûsei as the period when Chinese culture was truly assimilated and thus transformed the earlier “ancient” cultural patterns.1 Accordingly, he sets the beginning of chûsei at the early 10th century, and its demise at the rise of Western influence in the seventeenth century. William LaFleur designates as medieval the age when a Buddhist episteme—defined most prominently by the cosmology of the Six Paths (rokudô)—dominates: thus it commences with the composition of the Nihon ryôiki in the ninth century, and comes to a quiet end as the dominance of the Buddhist world view attenuates after 1600.2
I have no objection to...
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Ishii, Tatsuro. “Zeami on Performance.” Theatre Research International n.s. 8, no. 3 (autumn 1983): 190-206.
Analyzes Zeami's theories on the principles of effective nō performance.
Keene, Donald, and Royall Tyler, eds. Twenty Plays of the Nō Theatre. New York: Columbia University Press, 1970, 336 p.
Includes Keene's essay “The Conventions of the Nō Drama,” which discusses the difficulties in establishing a canon of Zeami's works, as well as six of Zeami's plays with brief introductions.
LaFleur, William R. “Zeami's Buddhism: Cosmology and Dialectic in N Nō Drama.” In Karma of Words: Buddhism and the Literary Arts in Medieval Japan, pp. 116-32. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.
Traces the influences of Zen Buddhism on Zeami's art and thought.
Rimer, J. Thomas, and Yamazaki Masakazu, trans. On the Art of Nō Drama: The Major Treatises of Zeami. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984, 298 p.
Includes, in addition to translations of Zeami's treatises, essays on the background of the treatises and on Zeami's artistic theories. Also features English-Japanese and Japanese-English glossaries and a bibliography.
Ueda, Makoto. “Zeami on Art: A Chapter for the History of Japanese...
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