Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 665

Zeami 1363-1443

(Full name Zeami Motokiyo)

Zeami is the foremost nō dramatist and theorist, whose plays and treatises are largely responsible for transforming no 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...

(The entire section contains 25212 words.)

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this Zeami study guide. You'll get access to all of the Zeami content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

  • Critical Essays
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

Zeami 1363-1443

(Full name Zeami Motokiyo)

Zeami is the foremost nō dramatist and theorist, whose plays and treatises are largely responsible for transforming no 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 near Nara, Japan, the son of Kan'ami, an eminent practitioner of the Kanze form of no drama. As a child Zeami performed in his father's troupe, where he attracted the notice of the Shōgun Ashikaga Yokimitsu 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. At this time Zeami wrote his first treatise, Fūshikaden (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, died—possibly he was murdered—and the shōgunate authorities made Zeami's cousin, On'ami, head of the family troupe. (Zeami himself had retired from acting a decade earlier to become a Buddhist monk.) Two years later Zeami was exiled to the island of Sado for reasons that remain un-clear, but possibly because of his opposition to On'ami. After the death of the Shōgun Yoshinori in 1441, Zeami was pardoned,and he returned to the mainland. He died two years later in Kyoto.


Of the 100 surviving plays attributed to Zeami, many, such as Aoi no Ue (The Lady Aoi), Nishikigi (The Brocade Tree), and Takasago, remain essential works in the nō repertory. Nō theater is performed on a bare stage with few props. The actors—all of whom are male—are clothed in splendid costumes and wear elaborate masks to portray an old man, a woman, a supernatural being, or other standard figures. The acting style is formal and stylized and incorporates elements of dance. A small orchestra of drums and flutes provides musical accompaniment. There are typically two acts to each play, and the protagonist (Shite) appears in both, depicting different facets of the character. In addition to the Shite, characters in a nō play may include the Waki, or supporting character, and the Tsure, or followers. A chorus often comments on the action. Historically, five nō plays—separated by comic interludes called Kyūgen—were performed together in a single program.


Historians and scholars of nō theater all concur that Zeami, continuing the work begun by 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. The concept of yūgen—a complex idea that indicates beauty, grace, depth—was particularly important to Zeami. For him, yūgen was in-separable from nō and was the wellspring of its spirituality. Makoto Ueda has observed that in Zeami's theories yūgen is "the inner beauty of an object outwardly ex-pressed by means of art. It is the manifestation of the 'primary meaning' which lies in the mysterious depth of things. In this sense it is identical with truth—the truth caught by the artist's 'soul'." It is this fusion of art and spirituality, critics agree, that lies at the heart of Zeami's greatness.

*Principal Works

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 341


Akoya no Matsu [The Pine of Akoya]

Aoi no Ue [The Lady Aoi]


Ashikari [The Reed Cutter]



Funabashi [The Floating Bridge]



Hanagatami [The Flower Basket]

Hanjo [Lady Han]

Hatsusei Rokudai [Rokudai at Hatsuse]

Hibariyama [Hibari Mountain]


Hōjōgawa [The River for the Hōjōe Ceremony]


Izutsu [Well Curb]

Kayoi Komachi [Komachi and the Hundred Nights]

Kinuta [The Cloth-Beating Block]


Koi no omoni [The Burden of Love]

Kōya monogurui [The Madman at Kōya]



Nishikigi [The Brocade Tree]

Obasute [The Deserted Crone]

Oimatsu [The Aged Crone]

Ōsaka monogurui [Osaka Madman]

Saigyōzakura [Saigyō and the Cherry Tree]

Sakuragawa [Sakura River]


Sekidera Komachi [Komachi at Sekidera]


Suma Genji [Genji at Suma]


Taisan Pakun [The Great Lord of Mount T'ai]


Tango monogurui [The Madman at Tango]


Tsuchiguruma [The Barrow]


Ukon no baba [The Riding Ground of Ukori]

Yamamba [The Mountain Hag]



Yōrō [The Care of the Aged]

Yumiyawata [The Bow at Hachiman Shrine]


Fūshikaden [Teachings on Style and the Flower]

Kandensho [Book of Transmission of the Flower]

Kakyō [A Mirror Held to the Flower]

Kyūi [Notes on the Nine Levels]

Sandō [also called Nōsakusho] [The Three Elements in Composing a Play]

†Sarugaku dangi [An Account of Zeami's Reflections on Art]

Shikadō [The True Path to the Flower]

Shūdōsho [Learning the Way]

Shūgyoku tokka [also spelled Shūgyoku-Tokuka] [Finding Gems and Gaining the Flower]

Yūgaku shūdō fūken [Disciplines for the Joy of Art]

* Given the uncertainties related to establishing the canon of Zeami's works and their chronology, no attempt has been made here to attach dates to the works, nor has an attempt been made to determine a definitive list of his works. Some of the plays included here are certainly by Zeami, others are his revisions of earlier plays, and still others have simply been attributed to him.

† These comments by Zeami were written down by Hata No Motoyoshi.

Overviews And General Studies

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 23884

Makoto Ueda (essay date 1961)

SOURCE: "Zeami on Art: A Chapter for the History of Japanese Aesthetics," in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. XX, No. 1, Fall, 1961, pp. 73-9.

[In the following essay, Ueda delineates Zeami's views on the nature and technique of Nō, particularly the concept of yūgen, or "elegance, calm, profundity, mixed with the feeling of mutability.]

Due to the increasing interest in Japanese theater in recent years, Zeami Motokiyo (1363-1443) is now a well-known figure in the West as a great writer of the drama; yet few people know that he is the author of some twenty essays which mark one of the highest peaks in the development of Japanese aesthetics. He was a most gifted performer of the whose fame overwhe lmed the contemporary court circles already early in his career, but he was also a very self-conscious artist who constantly endeavored to explore and expand the meaning of his art. Those essays, written over a period of thirty years, consistently reveal his never-failing passion for the improvement of his art; "a man's life has an ending," he says, "but there is no ending in the pursuit of the Nō." Although the essays were written primarily to provide proper guidance for professional actors, they contain a number of interesting comments on the nature of art in general, as Zeami's keen insight breaks through the conventional particulars of Japanese theater and reaches the level of the universal. Roughly speaking, Zeami's concept of art centers upon three basic principles: imitation, yūgen, and sublimity.

Among these three the principle of imitation is the most elementary one. Anyone who wishes to learn the art of the must start with this principle. "Objects to be imitated are too many to be enumerated here," Zeami says. "Yet they have to be thoroughly studied since imitation is the foremost principle in our art." Then he adds: "The basic rule is to imitate things as they are, whatever they may be." A actor should carefully observe the manners and speech of princes, statesmen, courtiers, and warriors; he might ask such people, when they are in his audience, whether his performance has been an acceptable imitation of what they actually say and do. Zeami especially advises an actor not to become too intent on producing the effect of forcefulness or elegance on the stage. When an actor consciously tries to show forcefulness in his acting, his performance will appear not forceful but coarse; when he deliberately attempts to make his acting elegant, his performance will look not elegant but weak. For, as Zeami remarks:

Forcefulness or elegance does not exist by itself. It lies in the proper imitation of an object. It should be known that weakness or coarseness arises when the actor does not follow the principle of imitation.

Any act of imitation which distorts nature for the sake of artistic effectiveness will result in coarseness or weakness; it is artifice, and not art. An aesthetic effect like forcefulness or elegance is potential in natural objects themselves. "Therefore," Zeami says, "if an actor gives himself up to this principle and truly becomes one with the object of his imitation, his performance will be neither coarse nor weak."

Basically, then, Zeami's idea of imitation is to imitate natural objects as they are, without distorting them or imposing any artifice upon them. However, when an actor proceeds to a higher stage of training, he should not be satisfied with the mere imitation of outward appearance. In the last-quoted sentence Zeami advocates the identification of the imitator with the thing he imitates; this is not an imitation in its ordinary sense, because an imitation usually requires the imitator's objective awareness of the thing he is imitating. In fact Zeami says: "In the art of imitation there is a stage called non-imitation. If the actor proceeds to the ultimate stage of imitation and entirely enters the thing he is imitating, he will no longer possess a will to imitate." In the highest stage of imitation the actor becomes unconscious of his art; the imitator is united with the imitated. The dualism of man and nature is gone; man and a natural object are the same in their ultimate essence. An artist should nullify his own individual self to express this essence; or, from another point of view, a natural object should be represented in its essence through the transparent soul of the artist. Zeami calls this essence the "primary meaning." A performer, in his early stage of training, should try to imitate the patterns of clothes or manners of speech as they are in actual life; but as his training goes on to a more advanced stage he need not be too concerned with the appearance of things but should strive to represent the "primary meaning." In point of fact it is impossible to realistically imitate a demon from Hell, because there is no such thing in our ordinary life. Still, a demon could be convincingly represented if the artist successfully creates the feeling of its "primary meaning." "Nobody has ever seen a demon from Hell," Zeami says. "It is more important, therefore, to act the role in an impressive manner than to attempt to imitate the demon."

What Zeami exactly means by the "primary meaning" is not easy to define, but we may have a general idea of it as we read his comment on the art of acting a frenzied man's role. He writes:

It is extremely difficult to play the roles of those who are mentally deranged due to various obsessions, such as one would suffer at the parting with one's parent, at the loss of one's child, or at the death of one's wife. Even a fairly good actor does not distinguish these particulars one from another, but portrays all frenzied men in a similar manner; the audience, consequently, is not impressed. A person is frenzied on account of his obsession; therefore, if the actor makes the obsession the primary meaning of his portraiture, and the frenzy the effective expression of it, then his acting will certainly impress the audience and create a breath-taking climax. An actor who moves the audience to tears by such means is a performer of true greatness.

The "primary meaning" of a person, then, is the inmost nature that constitutes the core of his personality. In a frenzied man mental derangement is merely an outward expression of an inner cause; the deepest truth in this person lies in his obsession, or what has caused the obsession, rather than in his symptoms of madness. The actor who wishes to portray such a man will try to represent the obsession, not merely to copy the features of any madman; he will imitate the characteristics of a frenzied man in such a way that the primary cause of his insanity may be revealed to the audience. A true artist, Zeami implies, pierces through the surface of everyday reality and reaches the hidden truth of things. Only when this is successfully done the characters in the drama will be given life; the supernatural will become natural. Only then the effectiveness, or beauty, of a performance will be fully achieved.

Zeami's idea of beauty is thus closely related to his way of looking at life. Yūgen, his ideal beauty, is not only an aesthetic principle but a mode of perception. Zeami remarks:

An actor should never divert himself from the principle of yūgen, irrespective of whatever kind of imitation he is engaged in. This will be like seeing a noble princess, a court lady, a man, a woman, a monk, a peasant, a humble man, a beggar, an outcast, all standing in a line with a spray of blossoms. Although they differ in social status and in outward appearance, they are equally beautiful blossoms insofar as we feel the impact of their beauty. The lovely blossoms are the beauty of human form. The beauty of form is created by the soul.

Yūgen is not a superficial surface beauty; it is a beauty that lies deep in the heart of things. Therefore, even an imitation of something which is not beautiful on the outside may be made beautiful if the inner beauty finds its way out. A withered old man, ugly in appearance, can be made to have a certain beauty: Zeami describes the beauty as "the blossoms blooming on a dead tree." A dreadful demon of Hell can be made beautiful too: Zeami describes the beauty as "the blossoms blooming on a crag." What creates real beauty is the "soul." Zeami uses the term in many different ways, but basically it seems to imply the "soul of art"—a spirit in pursuit of ideal beauty. To learn the "soul" of playwriting, one should study classical poetry; to learn the "soul" of mimicry, one would better start with the imitation of elegant persons. An actor should firmly get hold of what makes a person or a thing beautiful, and should attempt to express that essence of beauty in his performance. Zeami explains this process of artistic transformation with an anatomical metaphor—the bone, the flesh, and the skin. The bone is a spirit which tries to discover and express ideal beauty; it is "pre-art," as it were, and a genius may attain an amazing success even at a very early stage of his training. The flesh stands for that part of art which can be learned by training. The skin signifies artistic effectiveness; it is the visible part of art. A human body consists of the bone, the flesh, and the skin, although our eyes can see nothing but the skin. Similarly, the beauty of the is derived from artistic inspiration, conventionalized form, and externalized action, although the audience may see only the last of the three. Zeami emphasizes the importance of the invisible part of artistic creation as essential in producing visible beauty.

Yūgen, then, is the inner beauty of an object outwardly expressed by means of art. It is the manifestation of the "primary meaning" which lies in the mysterious depth of things. In this sense it is identical with truth—the truth caught by the artist's "soul." External reality is only illusory; there is a higher reality lying somewhere beyond the reach of our ordinary senses. The artist, in pursuit of beauty, momentarily penetrates the surface reality and gets hold of hidden truth. Zeami particularly yearns for the romantic world of The Tale of Genji wherein life and art, truth and beauty, are one and the same. Characters in this Japanese classic, such as Lady Aoi, Lady Yūgao, and Lady Ukifune, will be the most precious gems if they are made into the protagonists of plays, because these ladies, making beauty the basic principle of their life, have the most refined aesthetic sensibility. Thus the imitation of a court lady, as Zeami teaches, is the basis of all the other imitations. When this type of beauty is caught on its highest level, it will give the impression of "a white bird with a flower in its beak." The famous metaphor suggests Zeami's romantic concern with pure and graceful beauty, with a creation of unearthly beauty by means of art.

Yet it is in the very essence of yūgen that this elegant beauty is entwined with a tone of sadness. If yūgen is also a mode of perception into the hidden nature of things, it cannot but bring out a pessimistic notion of life. For the law of the universe prescribes that even the most beautiful ladies must suffer the tortures of living, that even the loveliest blossoms must fade away. Immediately after stressing the importance of graceful beauty in Nō performance, Zeami goes on:

But there are even more precious materials for producing the visible effect of yūgen than the elegant appearance of court ladies I have just referred to. These rare examples are seen in such cases as Lady Aoi cursed by Lady Rokujō's spirit, Lady Yū gao carried away by a ghost, or Lady Ukifune charmed by an unknown being.

Yūgen, then, lies not simply in the refined beauty of a court lady but in such a lady going through an intense suffering—a suffering caused by a power beyond her control, by the law of causation, by the supernatural, or by the unknown force of the universe. Such a suffering naturally leads to sad resignation. A court lady, lacking the masculine courage to heroically fight out her fate, gives herself up to religion when she comes to realize that suffering is the condition of being alive in this world. Yūgen, in its final analysis, may be conceived as a combined quality of elegant beauty and sad resignation—the elegant beauty which is the result of man's quest for an ideal life through art and artifice, and the sad resignation which comes from man's recognition of his powerlessness before the great cosmic power ruling over this world. Thus Zeami defines yūgen as "elegance, calm, profundity, mixed with the feeling of mutability."

Of these two elements of yūgen Zeami stressed the first much more than the second in the earlier part of his career: in those years yūgen was almost equivalent to graceful beauty. Yet as he grew old, the emphasis was reversed: he came to admire cold, serene, subdued beauty more and more. Already in one of his early essays there is a suggestion of this when he expresses his preference of a withering flower to a fully blooming one. Later he becomes more explicit: he says that a superb actor, when he comes to an important scene, will "perform chanting, dancing, and mimetic action in an inconspicuous manner, yet in such a way that the audience is somehow deeply moved by the subdued simplicity of the atmosphere." Elegant beauty has given way to the beauty of a calm, serene mind of a man who has perceived the sad truth of life and has finally transcended the sadness through religious resignation. In fact the latter phase of yūgen is so much emphasized in his later essays that Zeami uses a different term for it—"sublimity."

Zeami explains the nature of "sublimity" in two of his essays where he classifies plays and performances into five different types. Here the effect of yūgen is illustrated by a classical Japanese poem:

Snowy petals scatter
At the cherry-blossom hunting
On the field of Katano:
Shall I ever see again
Such a beautiful spring dawn?

The image of cherry-blossoms like snow neatly combines the purity of beautiful whiteness with the sense of life's mutability, adequately introducing the sentiment of the last two lines. "Sublimity," however, is a somewhat different beauty from this. Its mood is comparable to that of this poem:

Slowly, quietly,
The spear-shaped cedar-tree
On Mt. Kagu
Came to assume an air of austerity,
With its roots under the moss.

Instead of the gay, colorful loveliness of cherry-blossoms, "sublimity" has the silent, quiet dignity of an old cedar-tree. If yū gen is the calm, subdued beauty of youth, "sublimity" is the calm, subdued beauty of old age. Yūgen implies a sad awareness of life's change and mutability; "sublimity" transcends such and other sentiments of ordinary life, it implies permanence in nature, like an old cedar-tree standing among non-evergreen plants, or eternity in the cosmos, like the immortal Shinto god residing in Mt. Kagu.

Zeami further clarifies his idea of "sublimity" as he grades the different styles of performances into nine ranks. The quality of "sublimity," as he seems to suggest, lies in the highest three ranks: "the Style of Calm Flower," "the Style of Infinitely Deep Flower," and "the Style of Mysterious Flower." "The Style of Calm Flower," the lowest of the three, yields an effect which may be illustrated by an old Zen saying: "Snow is piled in a silver bowl." The style shows the ease and calm of an artist who is confident of his art after mastering all the required stages of training. A silver bowl, a wonder of art, contains snow, a wonder of nature, and both the container and the contained are united in the purity of whiteness. This is a superb beauty, yet still it is surpassed by the beauty of a higher style, called "the Style of Infinitely Deep Flower." Zeami explains this style again by metaphor: "Snow has covered thousands of mountains all in white. Why is it that one solitary peak remains unwhitened?" And he adds later: "The Style of Infinitely Deep Flower is the ultimate form of yūgen. It is a style which reveals the middle ground where being and non-being meet." A performer who has the Style of Calm Flower is still in the world of being, the world of empirical reality, even though his art may show the purest beauty of snow in a silver bowl. An actor who has advanced to the Style of Infinitely Deep Flower goes beyond the limitations of ordinary reality; an irrational element, like a black peak towering among snow-covered mountains, may enter the world which his performance creates. His art is beyond our measure; it is like a deep sea whose bottom lies somewhere in the mysterious unknown.

Yet there is still a higher rank, "the Style of Mysterious Flower," the highest of all nine ranks. Zeami explains:

The Style of Mysterious Flower:
"In Silla the sun shines brightly at midnight."

The "mysterious" means something which cannot be explained in words, something which cannot be thought of in human mind. It is like the sun shining at midnight, a phenomenon which transcends the expository capacity of speech. The profound art of a rare master in the No cannot be adequately described by any word of praise. It leads the audience to a state of trance; it is a styleless style which surpasses any scheme of grading. A style which yields such an impression upon the audience may be called the Style of Mysterious Flower.

A little later Zeami adds that this style covers "an imaginative landscape which is beyond verbal description as it lies in the realm of the absolute." The realm of the absolute, a term from Zen Buddhism, implies a sphere where there is neither good nor evil, neither right nor wrong, neither one nor all. The sun shining at midnight, which is a flat contradiction in ordinary reality, is perfectly acceptable in this realm. Silla, the present Korea, is located to the east of China; the sun is already rising there when it is still night in China. What seems to be a flat contradiction to our ordinary senses may be a profound truth when it is viewed from a point which transcends the limitations of time and space. Above our everyday reality there is a higher reality ordinary human faculties cannot sense. A perfect work of art can lead us into this realm in a trance, where we are made to perceive the invisible and hear the inaudible.

To Zeami, then, art means something which attempts to illuminate what lies in the deepest depth of human mind, what cannot be known through ordinary senses. It is concerned with the realm of the unconscious, with that part of human mind which cannot be reached through intellect, which belongs to the all-pervasive universe. Zeami seems to have believed in some great primal force that flows through life and death, through the conscious and the unconscious—a force which manifests itself in the "primary meaning" of every object in nature. He says that "one contains many while two are just two," referring to the same concept. An artist should try to represent this invisible energy of the cosmos by means of symbolism. Zeami, in one of his most suggestive passages on art, remarks:

If I may illustrate my purport by the principle of two ways in Buddhism, being and non-being, then the appearance will correspond to being and the vessel to non-being. To take an example, a crystal, although it is a pure, transparent object without color or pattern, produces fire and water. Why is it that two entirely heterogeneous things like fire and water emerge out of one transparent object? A poem says:

Smash a cherry-tree,
And you will find no blossom
In the splinters.
It is in the sky of spring
That cherry-blossoms bloom.

The seed for the flower of art is the artist's soul that has a power to feel. As a crystal body produces fire and water or a colorless cherry-tree bears blossoms and fruit, so does a superb artist create a variety of works out of his imaginative scenery. Such a man may be compared to a vessel. Works of art, treating the wind and the moon or flowers and birds, accompanying a festival or a picnic, are many and various. The universe creates thousands of things as the seasons roll on—blossoms and leaves, snow and the moon, mountains and seas, trees and grass, the animate and the inanimate. An artist should try to attain the stage of Mysterious Flower by letting these numerous things be the materials of his art, by making his soul the vessel of the universe, and by setting the vessel in the vast, windless way of emptiness.

Zeami recognizes the existence of two worlds, the world of being and that of non-being. The one is the world we can perceive through our senses, the world of appearance. The other cannot easily be seen because it is hidden beneath the surface; it can be felt only by the sensitive soul of an artist who has a power to feel. An artist creates his work out of his own soul, just as the universe creates thousands of things out of itself; the artist, as well as the universe, is a vessel which contains potential creative energy. The artist's soul gets its expression through the things of the universe; here the human and the cosmic, the microcosm and macrocosm, become one.

Zeami's concept of art, we may conclude, is based on an animistic mode of perception; it presumes a great collective mind running through all the things in the cosmos. Art imitates nature, but it does so in such a way as to reveal the hidden essence of man and things, the "primary meaning" which the sensitivity of the artist alone can feel. Naturally the artist will be concerned not so much with social or ethical problems as with the issues of man's deepest self which lies beyond the realm of the conscious. Inevitably he will approach the issues not through a reasoned analysis or a systematized metaphysics, but through an instantaneous perception, an emotional understanding, which is possible only when he annihilates himself into the things that surround him. He sees life through death, being through non-being, permanence through change. Yūgen, Zeami's ideal beauty, can be understood as such a mode of perception; it is not merely inherent in the things observed but lies in the way the observer looks at things. "Sublimity," an emotional im-pact produced by a supreme work of art, roots in the calm and serenity of mind which the artist attains as he becomes aware of man's mortality, as he recognizes eternity in myriads of changing things in nature.

Here Zeami's aesthetics approaches religion. Medieval Buddhism, particularly the Shingon sect, maintained that eternal truth, while it transcended the natural world, could be understood only through the things of the natural world. The priests expressed their ideas through images and symbols; they were, in a sense, artists who trans-formed the abstract into the concrete by means of symbolism. Kūkai (774-835), the founder of the Shingon school, openly stated that the essential truths of the esoteric teaching could not be set forth without the means of art, that "art is what reveals to us the state of perfection." The aesthetic qualities of Buddhism were further strengthened as the medieval age advanced and new sects such as Zen and Jōdo grew influential. The "artistic religion" almost became a "religious art." The drama was born and developed within this tradition, and Zeami's concept of art, apart from the question of direct influence, got its nourishment from the tradition. His insistence on the imitation of "primary meaning" rather than outward appearance reflects the Buddhist negation of visible reality as temporary and illusory. His concept of yūgen as "elegance, calm, profundity, mixed with the feeling of mutability" has an obvious Buddhist tinge. His "sublimity" seems parallel to simple and austere beauty, the highest aim of life as Zen Buddhism conceives it. The Buddhist dialectic permeates his whole aesthetics: in numerous ways he urges an artist to transcend being through non-being, to look at reality through super-reality. In fact the itself, as we have it today, is a religious drama: in its final analysis it presents man's original sin and the scheme of salvation by means of symbolic poetry and ritualistic stage-action.

The synthesis of aesthetics and Buddhist philosophy was nothing new. In medieval Japan Buddhism was the very center of life; it was the way in which man moulded chaos into order. Medieval Japanese poetics, which culminated in Fujiwara no Teika (1162-1241), was no exception, and it preceded Zeami's aesthetics by several centuries. The origins of Zeami's ideas on art are easily found in the writings of Teika and his followers: yūgen in aware ("sensitivity to the sadness of things"), "sublimity" in "chilliness," the imitation of "primary meaning" in the idea of "complete submersion of the self in the thing." If one comes to the question of origins, one will note that a number of ideas external to the have gone into Zeami's aesthetics—Shintoism, Confucianism, Chinese poetics, calligraphy, in addition to Buddhism and Japanese poetics. Zeami amalgamated them all into his own theory, with the help of the poets and artists who preceded him. The medieval age was the era of synthesis, as against our modern time which is the age of individualism and specialization. Zeami's concept on the shows his remarkable genius as an artist and theorist, but it is, from another point of view, the most beautiful, mature, and sophisticated expression of medieval Japanese aesthetics.

Makoto Ueda (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Old Pine Tree and Other Noh Plays, translated by Makoto Ueda, University of Nebraska Press, 1962, pp. vii-xxiv.

[In this essay, Ueda provides a detailed consideration of the conventions of No as prescribed by Zeami.]

The Japanese Noh drama has been attracting increasing interest in the West since it was first introduced early in this century. Ezra Pound was fascinated with it and edited some of its earliest English translations; Yeats wrote at least ten plays using the Noh as a model; and it attained an even greater popularity when Arthur Waley published his superb translations in the early twenties. Today it appears in almost every anthology of world literature that includes any Oriental writings at all.

The Noh's popularity is in large part due to its strange, mysterious outlook. This medieval Japanese drama, subtle, remote, and symbolic, offers something quite foreign to the tradition of Sophocles, Shakespeare, Molière, and Ibsen. The world of the Noh is inhabited by gods, spirits, and monsters; if there are any human beings they are priests, travelers, and children who have scarcely any individuality. By and large it is a timeless, superhuman world where no man of flesh and blood is likely to dwell. It is a world of night rather than of day, of dreams rather than empirical reality, since it deals with issues incapable of solution by a reasoned analysis.

In comparing the Orientals with the Westerners, it is often argued that in their attempts to grasp the truth of life the former are generally intuitive while the latter are discursive. Within its limited validity the generalization seems to be true of the Noh drama: compare the Noh with the works of the four playwrights just mentioned. A Noh play does not try to analyze man's problems; rather, it presents them in a mystical vision, momentary but far-reaching, and the resolution of the problems is left to the individual spectator. The resolution must be sought in the relation between man and the cosmos rather than between man and man; the scheme of salvation the Noh provides is necessarily religious.

The nondramatic nature of the Noh has evoked unfavorable criticism from some Western readers, who regard it as dull, trite, or sentimental. Ezra Pound himself became critical of the Noh in his later years, saying that it was too "soft." (Many present-day Japanese feel the same; they would rather go to see a Western drama, or a modern Japanese drama written in Western style, than sit in the Noh theater.) Since the dawn of dramatic literature in Greece, Westerners have seen the core of tragedy in a clash between all-powerful, ruthless fate and a brave, noble-hearted individual. We are overwhelmed by fear as we watch the black hand of Fate pitilessly destroying good people as well as bad, but we also feel pride as we observe one of our fellow men heroically fighting with a great unknown power; the tragic effect lies in the equilibrium of these two emotions. Such a concept, however, has never existed in the Japanese theater tradition. The Noh drama, in particular, seems to stand at the opposite pole.

The aim of the Noh has been clearly set forth by Zeami Motokiyo (1363-1443), a great Noh writer whose twentyodd essays on art mark one of the highest peaks in the history of Japanese aesthetics. The basic principles of the Noh, according to Zeami, are three: imitation, yūgen, and the sublime. Anyone who wishes to learn the art of the Noh must first master the principle of imitation. "Objects to be imitated are too many to be enumerated here," Zeami writes. "Yet they have to be thoroughly studied since imitation is the foremost principle in our art." Then he adds: "The basic rule is to imitate things as they are, whatever they may be." If an actor neglects this principle, his acting no longer will be art; it will sink to the level of artifice. At times, for example, an actor is too intent on producing the effect of forcefulness or elegance. The result is that he does not imitate things as they are; he exaggerates their attributes. An artistic effect like forcefulness or elegance is potentially present in natural objects themselves. "Therefore," Zeami remarks, "if an actor gives himself up to this principle and becomes one with the object of his imitation, his performance will look neither coarse nor weak." The artist, in other words, should try to put himself into the heart of natural objects rather than to bring them into the subjective sphere of his mind. He should minimize the activities of his ego; no personal element should intrude on the process by which an object in nature is transformed into its equivalent in art.

"In the art of imitation [Zeami says] there is a stage called 'non-imitation.' If one proceeds to the ultimate of imitation and entirely enters the thing he is imitating, he will possess no will to imitate." In the highest stage of imitation the artist becomes unconscious of his art; the imitator is united with the imitated. He can achieve this union only by projecting himself completely into the essence of the object he is imitating; then the man and the object are one in the essence they share with each other. An artist should dissolve his own individual self to express this essence—or, from another point of view, an object in nature should be represented in its essence through the transparent soul of the artist. Zeami calls this essence the "true intent." At the beginning of his apprenticeship a Noh actor tries to represent an object as it is, but as his art advances to a higher stage he endeavors to express the true intent of a thing rather than to copy its outward appearance. In acting out a madman's role, a mediocre actor merely imitates various symptoms of insanity; he portrays all frenzied men in a similar manner. A good actor heeds the words of Zeami: "A man is frenzied because of an obsession. Therefore, if the actor makes the obsession the true intent of his portraiture, then his acting will certainly impress the audience and create a breathtaking climax." The true intent of a character is the inmost nature of its personality, and in a frenzied man the deepest truth lies in his obsession, or in the cause of his obsession, rather than in the visible symptoms of his madness. Thus, instead of copying the features of a madman, the actor should try to represent the obsession itself. The true intent of a thing is the center of its existence: it is what makes an insane person insane, a forceful thing forceful, an elegant thing elegant. When the artist is perfectly united with the true intent, artistic effectiveness, or beauty, is finally attained.

Yūgen, the second of Zeami's aesthetic principles, can be understood as a type of beauty which results from such an act of imitation. It is not a superficial beauty; it is a beauty which resides in the heart of things. Even the imitation of something crude or ugly on the outside may be made beautiful if its inner beauty is evoked by means of art. A withered-up old man can be made beautiful; Zeami describes such beauty as "blossoms on a dead tree." A dreadful demon of hell can be made beautiful "blossoms on a crag," in Zeami's words. The truth lying deep at the bottom makes the ugliest thing beautiful. Truth is beauty.

It is the artist's obligation to search for truth and beauty which now are hidden beneath the surface but in the olden days were manifest everywhere in life. Zeami sets this golden age of Japanese arts in the tenth and eleventh centuries, a period whose culmination is masterfully described in The Tale of Genji. The ladies and gentlemen of the court, possessed of most refined taste in the arts, perpetually sought for ideal beauty; subtle, delicate, elegant beauty was for them the animating force of life. To imitate a court lady of that time an artist has only to copy her as she was in actual life, for she was yūgen itself, inside and out. Characters in The Tale of Genji such as Lady Aoi, Lady Yūgao, and Lady Ukifune are the most precious heroines of Noh. When their kind of beauty is pursued to its highest level of perfection, it gives the impression of "a white bird with a flower in its beak."

Yet in its very nature yūgen has an overtone of sadness. This is inevitable insofar as yūgen is the expression of the true intent. Every animate and inanimate object in nature must follow the law of the universe; it is bora, grows, matures, declines, dies. Man, seeking permanence, cannot but feel sad confronted with this great law of change and mutability. The ladies in The Tale of Genji represent ideal beauty not only because they are lovely in outlook and graceful in behavior but also because they are subject to the universal law. Zeami, having praised the elegant beauty of these ladies, goes on to say:

But there are even more precious materials for producing the visual effect of yūgen than the elegant appearance of the court ladies I have just referred to. These rare examples are seen in such cases as Lady Aoi haunted by Lady Rokujō's spirit, Lady Yūgao carried away by a ghost, or Lady Ukifune possessed by a supernatural being.

Yūgen lies not simply in the graceful beauty of a court lady, but in her experiencing intense suffering caused by a power beyond her knowledge and control. Against such an unknown superhuman power she has neither the ability nor the will to fight. Without fiery courage, superabundant vigor, or revolting spirit to defy heaven and earth, the only way open to her is to submit, to give herself up to religion; in sad resignation she tells herself that suffering is the condition of being alive in this world. Thus yūgen, in the final analysis, may be conceived as a combined quality of elegant beauty and sad resignation. Elegant beauty derives from man's quest for ideal beauty hidden beneath the surface reality; sad resignation from his recognition that he is a most fragile existence before the great cosmic power.

Zeami defines yūgen as "elegance, calm profundity, mixed with the feelings of mutability." In the earlier part of his career he stressed the first of these elements; to him in those years yūgen was almost equivalent to graceful beauty. But as he grew older the emphasis was reversed: calm, subdued, even chilly beauty came to fascinate him. Already in one of his early essays he confesses his preference for a withering flower to one in full bloom. Later, becoming more explicit, he says that a superb actor when he acts an important scene will "perform chanting, dancing, and mimicry in such a manner that the audience may, without knowing it, be deeply impressed by the subdued simplicity of the atmosphere." Zeami calls acting of this kind a "chilled performance" and ranks it the highest of all. The elegant beauty of a young woman who has the most refined taste in the arts has been superseded by the austere beauty of an old man who has experienced all the sad truths of life and finally transcended them with calmness of mind. In his later essays Zeami emphasizes the latter aspect of yūgen to such a degree that he gives it a different name: the sublime.

Illustrating the difference between yūgen and the sub-lime, Zeami quotes two classical Japanese poems which he believes represent the two types of beauty. The mood of yūgen prevails in the following poem:

Snowy petals scatter
At the cherry-blossom hunting
On the field of Katano.
Shall I ever see again
Such a beautiful spring dawn?

The image of cherry blossoms falling like snow neatly combines the beauty of pure whiteness with the feeling of sadness over life's brevity. It is spring, it is dawn, the year and the day are newly born; yet the blossoms are falling in the whiteness of snow and death. The truth in nature holds true for man: who can assure me that I shall live to see cherry blossoms next year? The sublime, on the other hand, does not have this colorful elegance and mellow sentimentality. It is illustrated in this poem:

Slowly, quietly,
The spear-shaped cedar tree
On Mount Kagu
Came to have a venerable air
With its roots under the moss.

The sublime is a silent, stately, austere beauty. It is not like the bright cherry blossoms which fall in a day or two; it implies permanence in nature, like an old cedar tree standing among annual plants, or eternity in the cosmos, like the immortal Shinto god residing in Mount Kagu.

Zeami uses another series of metaphors to clarify his idea of the sublime. It appears that he thought there were three kinds of sublimity. The first, called the Style of a Calm Flower, is like "the snow heaped in a silver bowl." It is pure, chill, and white. A silver bowl, a wonder of art, contains snow, a wonder of nature; the container and the contained are united in the purity of whiteness. But superb though this beauty is, it is surpassed by the second kind, the Style of an Infinitely Deep Flower. It may be illustrated by a Buddhist question: "The snow has covered thousands of mountains all in white. Why is it that one solitary peak remains unwhitened?" The silver bowl has disappeared; only snow, the beauty of nature, remains, now on a much larger scale. But natural beauty is not all; there is present also supernatural beauty—the black peak towering among snow-covered mountains, a seemingly discordant note which yet resolves the whole into harmony. This style goes beyond the limits of empirical reality and enters the infinitely deep realm of the mysterious. In turn, however, it is surpassed by the third kind of sublimity and the highest ideal of art, the Style of a Mysterious Flower. Zeami explains it by a line from a Chinese monk's saying: "In Silla the sun shines at midnight." This style, he adds, conveys "an imaginative landscape which is beyond verbal description as it lies in the realm of the absolute." The realm of the abso-lute, a term taken from Zen Buddhism, implies a sphere where there is neither good nor evil, right nor wrong, one nor all. The sun shining at midnight, in ordinary reality a flat contradiction, is perfectly acceptable in this surreal sphere. Silla, the present Korea, is east of China; the sun is shining brightly there when it is still night in China. A statement which appears preposterous to our ordinary senses may be a profound truth when viewed from a point which transcends the limitations of time and space. Far beyond everyday life, far beneath the conscious level of the mind, there is another order of reality of which tangible reality is but a shadow. A great work of art can introduce us into this other world; through it, even though but momentarily, we may touch on the absolute.

Zeami's aesthetics explains why the form of the Noh should be as it is. The essence of things is so deeply hidden that man's faculties barely reach it; its beauty is too beautiful for ordinary human senses to feel or perceive. A Noh writer assumes himself to be a seer; in his mystical experience he touches upon the essence of life and creates a beautiful vision out of it. He wants his audience to feel yūgen and the sublime, to see the vision with him.

Such a vision of life is best expressed in poetry. Thus the Noh is primarily poetry rather than drama; or it is poetry acted on the stage. Everything is highly stylized. The dialogue, in large part written in verse, is sung or chanted, accompanied by orchestral music and often by dancing as well. Every play has a musical structure, starting with a slow, regular rhythm and ending with a fast, irregular beat. The language of the Noh is poetic and emotive, making profuse use of allusions, metaphors, and symbols. The Noh stage is almost completely bare; if there is any stage property it has but slight resemblance to the actual object that it represents. The principal actor wears a mask, which makes it impossible for him to display his individuality through facial expression. All these artistic devices lead the audience away from reality toward the realm of the absolute where it is not the individual man and human society that matter, but the whole human race and the cosmos.

But what is this realm of the absolute? For the answer we must go to the Noh plays themselves. They were written precisely because the question could not be adequately answered in ordinary speech. Zeami's aesthetics, however, already suggests the direction the answer will take. To recapitulate briefly, his idea of the true intent implies the dual nature of reality: above our ordinary reality is a higher reality which works on man with its great, mysterious power. Before this power man is a tiny, insignificant existence; all he can do is submit himself to it. When he recognizes the universal law and sadly submits himself, there appears the beauty of yūgen; when he submits without sadness, there appears the beauty of the sublime. The latter form of submission signifies a state of mind so serene that it can calmly accept nature and art, life and death, time and eternity all as one; it is the perfection not only of art but of life. To attain such a state of mind requires that one be constantly aware there is nothing valuable in life; at all times one's eyes must be kept fixed on death. Yet the fact remains that man is a biological and social creature; in order to live he must fulfil certain physical, social, and moral laws. And here arises the Noh writers' concept that all living things are sinners, that sin is inherent in man.

It is no accident that a great number of Noh protagonists are men and women obsessed with the awareness of their sins. They really are not living persons but departed souls unable to rest in peace because they are so keenly aware of sins committed when they were living. Their sins, which seemingly vary in nature from play to play, are really one—a universal sin, the root of all evil. This fundamental sin stems from man's failure to recognize the great law that governs the universe, the law that rules over him before his birth, during his lifetime, and after his death. Man should conduct his life according to this timeless primary law before he follows manmade secondary laws. If one should see only the laws of the present world and lose sight of the transcendental law, it would be a reversal of values and constitute a fatal sin. The fact that a person has been morally perfect in his lifetime does not guarantee heaven for him after death. Thus we have many Noh plays in which the protagonist—a warrior of courage and loyalty, an artist of rare distinction, a child of great filial piety—suffers the torments of hell apparently without having committed any crime. All the Noh protagonists are, or have been, sinners except in a comparatively small number of plays called God Plays. (These are the exceptions because their heroes are gods who need not follow the ways of man.) Animals and plants too are doomed to suffer in hell; indeed some Noh plays have made this their theme. All living things are sinners; to live is to sin.

How, then, can anyone ever be saved? No man can save his fellow men, since all men are sinners. Salvation must come from a mighty power above men, God—Buddha, in medieval Japan. Thus the Noh drama has a Buddhist priest or monk for its deuteragonist. Since he is merely an agent of Buddha, there is no individuality in his physical and mental make-up; he is even without a name in many plays. Usually it is the priest who first appears on the stage and describes the setting to the audience. His function as a medium between the stage and the audience is indicative of his more important function as a medium between Buddha and man, helping man to perceive the true way of life and saving him from self-made hell. He is the link between a dream-world and the everyday world, the one who dreams and visualizes heaven and hell for us.

Frequently he is a wandering monk; oftentimes he visits Shinto shrines, thereby making himself holy in both the Buddhist and the Shinto sense. On his journey he meets the protagonist, the departed soul of a sinner who has come out of hell to ask for help. In the Noh drama it is always the sinner who brings about the encounter; the monk is a mere passer-by. The sinner, having come to a painful recognition of his sin, transforms himself so that he can come back into the present world and seek a way to salvation. In some plays he may even be engaged in a symbolic act of penance—offering water to a god or sweeping the garden of a shrine every day. When he meets the monk, he is at first too shy to confess his sin; when he tells the story of his sinful life he pretends that it has happened to someone else. Becoming more and more emotional as the story progresses, he asks the monk to pray for him, and disappears. Here the first part of the play ends. When the second part opens we see the monk praying for the peace of the sinner's soul. Thereupon the sinner reappears, no longer in disguise. Now he is not ashamed of revealing his true identity and confessing his sin. He performs a dance, the reenactment of his sin. This frank, bold confession indicates that he is fully aware of his sin, that he has courage enough to face it, and that he is truly repentant.

This ecstatic dance is the climax of the play. The audience as well as the monk now sees the protagonist's sin in its entirety. From the latter's point of view the dance also functions as a means of purgation. The protagonist has hitherto been obsessed with the constant awareness of his sin; now his excessive emotions are purged through this dance of confession. According to Freud, a person who is obsessed with the memory of a painful event tries to overcome his neurosis by going through a similar experience in his dreams. The protagonist of a Noh play does the same thing. He re-creates his past sinful act, experiences it once more, and thereby overcomes his obsession. After the dance we see the sinner attaining serenity of mind, at times even ascending to heaven.

The Noh drama, we may say then, provides a scheme of salvation, after leading the audience to the realization that all men are sinners. This, as we have seen, is done within a play. Yet this is also done within the pattern of a day's performance, on a larger scale. A Noh performance, if orthodox, consists of a sequence of five plays; a Noh play is never performed by itself. All plays in the Noh repertoire are classified into five categories according to the place they occupy in the sequence. The five types are commonly called, in the order of performance, God Plays, Man Plays, Woman Plays, Frenzy Plays, and Demon Plays. Each Noh play, while complete in itself, has a part to perform within the sequence as a whole, and in this larger context takes on greater scope and complexity of meaning.

A Noh performance starts with a God Play. The play prepares the audience for a mystical experience; it is the invocation of a god through a ritual. Since its protagonist is a god, this type of play differs somewhat in mood from those in the other categories. Divine blessing prevails over the world here: the god is exalted as the head of the cosmic hierarchy while the emperor is respected as the protector of social order. The world is devoid of sin; men and gods live in the same sphere. A man can even meet a god, as does the traveler in The Old Pine Tree. Moreover, the most virtuous of men can actually become immortal gods; God Tenjin was once a man. A God Play presents the world of innocence and man before his fall.

In the Man Play, the next in the sequence, we see a fallen man. The hero in most Man Plays is a warrior who once distinguished himself in battle but is now dead and suffering in hell. In The Battle at Yashima, for example, Yoshitsune is a Hector figure, not only valiant but honorable, the most popular figure in Japanese war-legends. The play portrays him as an ideal warrior fighting among soldiers who are all brave and noble, saving his honor at the risk of his life. Nonetheless, he must suffer the torments of hell after his death, and at the play's end we are still not sure of his salvation. Worldly honor is not condemned, but there is a higher value than that, and Yoshitsune did not recognize it while he was alive. Man has lost his innocence. Even though he has violated no moral law in his lifetime, even though he has done many a meritorious deed on earth, he has to go to hell when he dies. Unlike the peaceful, orderly world of a God Play, violence and chaos prevail over the world of a Man Play. Man's world has turned into a battlefield where the strong prosper and the weak perish.

In contrast to the epic forcefulness of a Man Play, lyrical gracefulness is the mood pervading a Woman Play, the third in the sequence. Just as the hero of a Man Play is a famed warrior perfect in military arts, the protagonist of a Woman Play usually is a lovely court lady most refined in artistic taste. Again the fact that she is an ideal woman measured by the medieval moral standard does not secure heaven for her; she cannot rest in peace after her death, and her soul sorrowfully haunts the present world. Many Woman Plays, however, differ somewhat from the Man Plays in depicting the protagonist not in her days of glory but in her time of penitence. In many Woman Plays the heroine is engaged in acts of penitence. The heroine of The Woman within the Cypress Fence, as an outward expression of her inner effort toward redemption, daily offers water to the gods. Water, a nature symbol signifying the source of life, is also a Buddhist symbol of karma, and her salvation is typically Buddhist: she gains calmness of mind through a contemplation of man's mortality. The play's mood approaches the sublime.

The fourth category in the sequence includes various kinds of plays, but the most representative is the so-called Frenzy Play. The world of a Frenzy Play is pre-dominantly human; there is seldom a god, a ghost, or a demon involved. The protagonist is often a mother who has gone insane because her child was kidnaped. She goes on a lonely journey through many provinces in search of the lost little one, and at last by a miraculous coincidence mother and child are reunited. In Man and Woman Plays we have seen people suffering in hell after their death; now we realize that hell exists in our own world. At the same time we are shown that miracles are possible in man's world too, that a soul can be redeemed just as a lost child can be restored—but only if one dedicates oneself to that single purpose with such ardor that people think it madness.

Jinen the Preacher … is not a typical Frenzy Play. But in theme it is obviously in line with, or rather extends the line of, an ordinary Frenzy Play. Instead of a protagonist who is struggling for salvation, we have a priest who has already redeemed himself and is now engaged in saving others. The world he lives in is very human, with plenty of sins; in fact, there are even slave merchants transacting their degrading business. Jinen is a man of flesh and blood; he cracks jokes, and he can become a showman if the audience is sleepy. Yet Jinen is able to perform a miracle—he rescues a little girl from the slave merchants. A man, being a sinner, cannot save another; but Jinen is a redeemed man, almost a god.

A Demon Play, which concludes a Noh performance, describes a battle between a man and a demon. The protagonist is usually a terrifying monster or devil, but he is finally killed or forced to flee. In a Frenzy Play man conquers hell on earth; in a Demon Play he is victorious over the inhabitants of the underworld. The victor in this battle need not be an enlightened priest like Jinen. In The Mirror of Pine Forest, for example, a simple little country girl, by virtue of the intensity and steadfastness of her devotion to her late mother, is able to drive away a demon from Hades. Despite the supernatural element at the end, the play's world is very human. The father suspects his daughter of calling down curses on her stepmother; and the daughter imagines that her father is suffering pangs of conscience because he took a second wife too soon. It is, as the father says, a degenerate age when no miracle is likely to occur. Yet the playwright asserts that man may become a divine being, that transfiguration is still possible, if only he can devote his whole personality to the single purpose of loving another.

The performance of five Noh plays in orthodox sequence thus delineates man in innocence, fall, repentance, redemption, and final glory. As the performance completes its cycle, the scheme of redemption is completed. But, as we have seen, the Noh writer's intent lay not so much in presenting Buddhist philosophy as in leading the audience into the mood of yūgen or the sublime. The audience would thoroughly enjoy the variety and change of mood from the ritualistic, slow-moving Old Pine Tree to the more realistic, quick-paced Mirror of Pine Forest.

The mood development throughout the cycle will become apparent if we observe the dance which climaxes each play. The first play has a solemn ritual dance, the second a vehement war dance, the third a graceful court dance, the fourth a suite of popular dances, and the fifth a dreadful demon dance. The structural unity of a Noh play is achieved through its rhythm and tempo rather than through plot or character development. Generally speaking, a Noh play starts with a slow, regular rhythm, often with a succession of alternating five- and seven-syllable lines. As the play proceeds the line length be-comes more and more irregular, and the rhythm more and more diversified. Then, as the protagonist reveals himself to be a ghost, the sentences become fragmentary, the tempo quicker, the tone no longer subdued. The main actor's slow movements now turn to a lively dance. The beginning, the middle, and the ending of a Noh play may be compared to movements of a sonata: exposition, development, recapitulation.

The pattern of the Noh drama can be considerably changed within its general framework according to the individual plays chosen for presentation. One director may use for the Woman Play a gay piece with a young girl or a fairy as its protagonist; this will give a lighter tone to the whole sequence. Another director might select for the fourth play a typical Frenzy Play with an insane mother as the protagonist, which would give a grave, pathetic coloration to the cycle. It is a unique feature of the Noh drama that the director can give a different tone and color to the performance by varying his choice of plays. It has been assumed that there were more than two thousand plays in the repertoire in the golden years of the Noh. About eight hundred survive today.

In the Noh drama we see a typical example of medieval Japanese art. Art and religion were united in one, the former giving the form, the latter the content. Medieval Japanese Buddhism maintained that eternal truth, while it transcended the natural world, could be understood only through the objects in the natural world. The priests of the day expressed their ideas through images and symbols; in a sense they were all artists who transformed the invisible into the visible by means of symbolism. The artists, on the other hand, were well aware that true beauty lay hidden in the innermost nature of things, and in their attempt to grasp the buried truth they inevitably adopted a religious approach. The artists were priests who could evoke the spirits of the "other world" in the present life. This point is eloquently set forth by Zeami:

If I illustrate my purport by the principle of two ways in Buddhism, being and nonbeing, then the appearance will correspond to being and the vessel to nonbeing. To take an example, a crystal, although it is a pure, transparent object without color or pattern, produces fire and water. Why is it that two entirely heterogeneous things like fire and water emerge out of one transparent object? A poem says:

Smash a cherry tree,
And you will find no blossom
In the splinters.
It is in the sky of spring
That cherry blossoms bloom.

The seed for the flower of art is the artist's soul which has a power to feel. As a crystal body produces fire and water or a colorless cherry tree bears blossoms and fruit, so does a superb artist create a variety of works out of his imaginative scenery. Such a man may be called a vessel. Works of art, treating the wind and the moon or flowers and birds, accompanying a festival or a picnic, are many and various. The universe creates thousands of things as the seasons roll on—blossoms and leaves, the snow and the moon, mountains and seas, trees and grass, the animate and the inanimate. The artist should try to attain the Mysterious Flower by letting these numerous things be the materials of his art, by making his soul the vessel of the universe, and by setting the vessel in the vast, windless way of emptiness.

The passage sums up the aesthetics not alone of the Noh but of all art forms in medieval Japan.

This attitude is essentially different from that of Western dramatists. In the drama of the Hellenic tradition one is always aware of one's identity as different from the others, from the objects in nature, from Fate, from Fortune. Western playwrights thus present a man clashing with Fate or running after Fortune. But classical Japanese dramatists had little objective awareness of external reality, since they thought themselves to be part of nature. In their way of thinking, man had no free will (hence no tragedy); nor was he a social or moral creature (hence no comedy). Their image of an ideal man was a person liberated from the perishable self, a man who would live in the three worlds, past, present, and future, according to the great cosmic law. Naturally all they wrote were religious plays which described the inherent sin in man and suggested a possible way to salvation. The Noh drama shows this tradition in its most beautiful, mature, and sophisticated form.

Donald Keene (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: "The Conventions of the Nō Drama" and introductions to Komachi at Sekidera (Sekidera Komachi), The Brocade Tree (Nishikigi), Semimaru, The Deserted Crone (Obasute), Lady Han (Hanjo), and The Reed Cutter (Ashikari), in Twenty Plays of the No Theatre, edited by Donald Keene with Royall Tyler, Columbia University Press, 1970, pp. 1-15, 66-7, 82-3, 100-01, 116-17, 130-31, 148-49.

[In the excerpts below, Keene discusses some of the difficulties inherent in establishing a canon of Zeami's works, and he offers brief introductions to six of his plays.]

The difficulties confronting the would-be critic of No are enormous. Not a single play is dated, and all we can infer about even the most famous works is the date before which they must have been composed, information perhaps gleaned from a diary entry mentioning a performance. Some plays can be dated only by century, and others seem to have been rewritten so often that the establishment of a single date of composition would be impossible. Even when we know that a play with a certain title was performed, say, in the fifteenth century, it is by no means clear that this is the same work currently performed with that title. Dōjōji was formerly attributed to Kan'ami (1333-1384); it has recently been attributed by careful scholars to Nobumitsu (1435-1516); but other authorities are convinced that in its present form it cannot be older than the late sixteenth century. A few texts have been miraculously preserved in Zeami's own hand-writing. Some are of plays no longer performed, but those of plays in the current repertory differ so conspicuously from their present versions as to throw doubt on claims by the schools of Nō that they have preserved unaltered the authentic traditions of the past. The dating of the plays is further complicated by the fact that they were written in an artificial poetic language that only inadvertently reflected current speech; this meant that the differences in language separating, say, Shakespeare and Congreve, do not distinguish a No play of the fourteenth century from one of the sixteenth.

The authorship of the plays is almost as perplexing as the dating. Before 1940 scholars generally accepted the traditional attributions that gave credit to Zeami for about half the plays in the repertory of some 240 works. The application of more rigorous standards drastically reduced the number of plays attributed to Zeami, and some scholars now hesitate to allow him more than a dozen or so. Zeami undoubtedly borrowed and modified works by his father Kan'ami and other early dramatists to suit the audiences of his own time, and these revised plays were further modified after his death. The main outlines of the plays and much of the poetry might remain essentially unchanged, but innumerable variants cropped up in the prose sections. The five schools of No each insist that their own texts are the only authentic ones, and they sometimes have their own traditions about the authorship as well.

Attributions of the plays were formerly based chiefly on various lists prepared in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but these lists are no longer trusted. Too often they credited plays to Zeami, rather than admit that the author was unknown. Today scholars recognize as genuine works by Zeami only those mentioned by name in his critical writings. Zeami quoted extracts from different plays, and we know that he identified by author only works by other men; an extract not followed by the author's name must therefore have been from a play by Zeami himself. However, the insistence on a mention in Zeami's critical works may be imposing too rigorous a criterion. It is possible that he failed to mention all of his plays in his criticism, and some plays may have been written after the critical works relied on for dating. It is difficult otherwise to imagine who else could have written such masterpieces as The Shrine in the Fields (Nonomiya) or Yuya, works now listed merely as "anonymous" by meticulous scholars.

Attributions on the basis of style have also been attempted. It obviously does not make much sense to speak about a dramatist's style if his works were all revised again and again by later men; nevertheless, critics customarily praise Kan'ami's "strength and simplicity," Zeami's yūgen (or style of mystery and depth), Motomasa's pathos, Miyamasu's realism, or Zenchiku's philosophical loftiness. But surely no one reading Matsukaze, attributed to Kan'ami, would be struck by its "strength and simplicity"; perhaps his original play was so extensively revised by Zeami and others as to remove any personal imprint. The danger of making attributions on the basis of preconceptions as to a dramatist's distinctive manner is obvious, but some critics feel so sure of their grasp of Zeami's style as to be able to declare, for example, that The Shrine in the Fields cannot have been written by Zeami because the last word is a noun (Jkataku, the Burning House) and Zeami always ended his plays with verbs. Certainly the style of a play offers important clues both to the authorship and the date, but as yet it is not possible to do more than suggest with varying degrees of confidence some twenty-five plays that may be by Zeami. Not only do we lack information on the dates of these plays, but we have no way of establishing their relative order. It is as if we were able to decide on the basis of internal and external evidence that both Romeo and Juliet and King Lear were by Shakespeare, but had no idea which work came earlier in his career or if Shakespeare merely revised the work of a predecessor.

Studies of Nō as a literary form are still in their infancy, though the history of the Nō theatre and the techniques of performance have been investigated with diligence and sometimes with brilliant results. Japanese critics have generally contented themselves with describing the characteristic style of the poetry as a "brocade" consisting of lovely bits and pieces of old poetry. The extensive bor-rowing from such collections as Kokinshū ("Collection of Poems Old and New," 905) and Wakan Rōei ("Collection of Japanese and Chinese Poems for Reading Aloud," c. 1010) sometimes does indeed suggest a "brocade" of allusions, but the Nō plays clearly possess a distinctive style of their own. Because drama fell outside the range of interest of traditional scholars of Japanese literature it was left to Yeats to point out the patterns of symbols in the plays, a remark that inspired some Japanese scholars for the first time to examine the recurring imagery that is so characteristic a feature of Zeami's style [William Butler Yeats, Certain Noble Plays of Japan].

The evolving style of the Nō plays can also be traced in terms of the degree of conformity to the "standard" models. Zeami himself cited his work Yunti Yawata as a paradigmatic example of Nō, but hardly another play in the repertory conforms exactly to its formulae. It is nonetheless true that plays of Zeami's time tend to follow a set form. With respect to the division into parts, for example, there is little deviation from the established categories: shite, the principal character, the only true "person"; waki, or secondary actor, whose arrival on the scene introduces the story and who asks the questions the audience itself might ask; and tsure, or companion, who may accompany either the shite or waki, but rarely rises above being a shadow. Some of the older works of the repertory (like Shōkun) seem to have been comp osed before the standard roles (shite, waki, and so on) had been evolved, and the present divisions seem arbitrary and unnecessary. Even Zeami's works do not always follow the paradigms of composition: in Lady Han (Hanjo), for example, the kyōgen part is vital to the action and not merely a diversion. But such departures from the standard seem minor when compared to those in preZeami or nost-Zeami plays. In Komachi and the Hundred Nights (Kayoi Komachi), for example, Komachi is the tsure, but far from being a mere "companion" to the shite is his antagonist. Hatsuyuki by Zemp (c. 1474-c. 1520) altogether lacks a waki part. The shite part in The Valley Rite (Taniko) is so minor the character does not utter a word. In other late works the distinction between shite and waki is so vague that the nomenclature differs according to the school.

In terms of the roles, then, one can say that before Zeami the distinctions were probably fluid; with Zeami they attained a "classical" definition; but after Zeami the conventions increasingly tended to break down in face of new demands by the audiences. A similar pattern of development can be described with respect to other aspects of Nō. The art gradually reached maturity late in the fourteenth century, largely thanks to the patronage by the shogun's court. Nō had originally developed as a popular theatre, and its repertory consisted mainly of plays on religious themes presented at Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines throughout the country. But when the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu decided in 1374 to extend his patronage to the art, it changed its character. The texts were embellished with quotations from the poetry and prose of the past, no doubt to please members of the shogun's court who had literary pretensions; but this meant that the illiterate commoners who had formerly supported Nō were gradually forgotten by the playwrights who turned their backs on dramatic or didactic themes in favor of aesthetic excellence. Zeami especially delighted in literary display, even when it led to a static dramatic situation. The speech in Komachi and the Hundred Nights in which Komachi describes the fruits and nuts she has gathered, giving a poetic allusion for each, contributes nothing to the action, but it helps create a mood that is associated with Zeami, who added this section to the less ornamented text by Kan'ami.

With Zeami Nō attained its classic form and its highest level of literary distinction. Although Zeami also composed some works in a realistic manner, his plays are known especially for their yūgen, a haunting poetic quality both in the language and in the overall effects. Komachi at Sekidera (Sekidera Komachi) is perhaps the supreme example of yūgen in No. There is almost no plot to the play—some priests take a young disciple to hear from an old woman the secrets of poetry and gradually become aware she is the celebrated poet Komachi—and the shite is virtually immobile during the first hour of the performance, but the poetry and the atmosphere it creates make this play incredibly moving. …

… The patterns of poetry and prose vary from play to play, but they present as a whole a distinctive literary form. The frequent use of quotations is a literary convention, and a text which made few references to the poetry found in the famous anthologies would seem thin and without overtones. No is deeply concerned with Japanese poetic traditions. Not only are many poems embedded in the dialogue, but poetry itself is the subject of such plays as Komachi at Sekidera, and a principal theme of The Reed Cutter (Ashikari). It would not be normal for characters in a European drama to relate the principles of the art of poetry and give examples of favorite works, but this is precisely what we find in these plays. In the No theatre many different arts—poetry, music, dance, and mime—converge, at a level that does justice to all.

The Nō theatre makes maximum demands on the audience. The texts are difficult and the relatively scant mimetic elements contribute more to establishing the inner tensions of the characters than to clarifying the words or actions. Some plays indeed are so exceedingly slow-moving as to lull a sizable part of the audience to sleep. But precisely because it takes this risk No succeeds in its unique domain.

Komachi at Sekidera belongs to the third category. It was probably written by Zeami, though some authorities hesitate to make the attribution. The play is considered to be the loftiest and most difficult of the entire No repertory. In the past century only a few great actors at the close of their careers have ventured to perform it. It enjoys its high reputation because it celebrates, with the most exquisite simplicity, the bittersweet delight of being alive. Childhood, maturity, extreme old age, the pleasure and pain of life, are immediately communicated. The play conveys a timeless moment in the brief interval between birth and death. Its subject is poetry. Much of the great poetry in Nō lies somewhat outside the main Japanese poetic traditions, but Komachi at Sekidera is at once a superb Nō play and a splendid expression of the sources of Japanese poetry. The shite role is considered so difficult because there is little an actor can add to the text unless he is supremely gifted. During the first hour of the performance Komachi hardly stirs.

The setting is wonderfully appropriate. The time is the festival of Tanabata, the seventh night of the seventh month: the one night of the year when the Cowherd star can cross the River of Heaven to join the Weaver-girl star. On earth all are celebrating the lovers' brief reunion. Even at Sekidera, a place of quiet renunciation, the priests and child acolytes are about to observe the festival. But while talking about poetry with the aged woman who lives in a hut nearby, the abbot of the temple discovers she is none other than Ono no Komachi.

Komachi, a woman of great beauty and literary gifts, lived at the Heian court during the ninth century. She became a legend in later times, with many apocryphal stories surrounding the few known biographical facts. Five No plays about Komachi are in the present repertory; Komachi and the Hundred Nights presents another aspect of the Komachi legend, and Sotoba Komachi (translated in Keene, Anthology of Japanese Literature) ranks nearly on a level with Komachi at Sekidera.

The structure of the play is classic, and remarkable for its economy and simplicity. Nothing jars, nothing is wasted. The moment when Komachi admits her identity to the Abbot is particularly touching because so unaffected.

Sekidera ("The Barrier Temple") still exists at Ōtsu, a city east of Kyoto; its modern name is Chōanji.

Komachi at Sekidera is in the repertory of all schools of Nō.

The Brocade Tree belongs to the fourth category, and is by Zeami. The Shūchūshō, a late twelfth-century work, quotes the following verse:

My brocade trees
Number a full thousand;
Now I shall see within
Her chamber forbidden to other men.

It goes on to explain nishikigi, "brocade trees," as follows: "When an Ebisu man in the interior of Michinoku wishes to propose to a girl, he does not write her a letter. Instead, he decorates a stick about a foot long with different colors, and sets it in the ground before the girl's gate. If the girl wishes to meet him, she immediately takes it into her house. If she is slow to do so, her suitor plants more. By the time he has planted a thousand, the girl sees that he really is sincere, so she takes them in and the two meet. If she does not take them in, her suitor gives up. The poem just quoted is by a man whose thousand brocade trees have brought him success." The Ebisu were a "barbarian," probably non-Japanese, people. Michinoku is the area at the northern end of Honshu.

On hosonuno, the "narrow cloth of Kefu," the same source quotes the poem,

The narrow kefu cloth of Michinoku
Is so very narrow
That it will not meet across my breasts;
Just so is my unrequited love!

The Mumyōshō, also of the late twelfth century, says, "Narrow kefu cloth is a cloth made in Michinoku. It is woven of feathers. Since this material is scarce, a narrow loom is used and only short lengths of cloth are made." In the play, kefu is used as a place name. No such village exists, however. Kefu is simply the name of the cloth.

Some Japanese critics admit that the happy tone of the ending of The Brocade Tree comes as rather a surprise, but they do not feel that this detracts from the play's quality. Good though it is, however, the play is not often performed.

Ezra Pound's version of The Brocade Tree, based on an unpublished translation by Ernest Fenollosa, is too far from the original to qualify as a translation. … The Brocade Tree is performed by all schools of Nō.

Semimaru, a work of the fourth category, was written by Zeami. The story of Semimaru, the blind biwa player—the biwa is a kind of lute—appears as early as the twelfth-century collection of tales, Konjaku Monogatari, but apparently has no historical basis. The Konjaku Monogatari version relates that Semimaru lived near the barrier of Osaka, between Kyoto and Lake Biwa. Once he had been in the service of a courtier, a famous biwa master, and learned to play by listening to his master. Minamoto Hakuga, the son of a prince, heard of Semimaru's skill and wished to bring him to the Capital. Semimaru, however, refused. So eager was he to hear Semimaru's biwa that Hakuga journeyed to Mt. Ōsaka, a wild and distant place in those days, though today a half-hour journey from Kyoto.

By the time of the writing of the Heike Monogatari, a century later, Semimaru had become known as the fourth son of the Emperor Daigo (r. 897-930). Like the Semimaru of the Konjaku Monogatari, he lived by a barrier, but it was the one at Shinomiya Kawara. A man named Hakuga no Sammi was so anxious to hear him play that he visited Semimaru's hut every day, rain or shine, for three years without fail.

Zeami borrowed from various versions of the legend of Semimaru as known in his day, but especially from the Heike Monogatari. No previous version of the story, however, mentions Princess Sakagami, who was apparently Zeami's creation. Semimaru is one of the rare plays in which the tsure (Semimaru) is nearly as important as the shite (Sakagami); another such play is Komachi and the Hundred Nights.

Semimaru is perhaps the most tragic play of the entire No repertory. Unlike The Sought-for Grave, in which Unai returns to earth to tell of her endless torments in hell, the tragedy of Semimaru takes place in this world, and involves two human beings who are nearly as real and immediate to us as characters in Western drama.

During the height of the fanatical nationalism of the 1930s and 1940s Semimaru was banned from the stage for its alleged disrespect to the Imperial Family, but today it is performed by all schools of No.

The Deserted Crone, a play belonging to the third category, seems unmistakably a work by Zeami. Sanari Kentarō, the editor of the great collection of Nō plays Yōkyoku Taikan, summed up the play aptly: "An old woman has been abandoned deep in the mountains. Dressed in white robes, she dances a quiet dance in a landscape brightly lit by the moon. She utters hardly a word of complaint but, resigned to the world, confines herself to expounding the Buddhist teaching of nonattachment. … This play surely must be close to the apex of Zeami's yūgen."

The source of the legend of the "deserted crone" may be found in an anonymous poem in the Kokinshū (no. 878):

No solace for my heart at Sarashina
When I see the moon
Shining down on Mount Obasute.

The tenth-century poem-tale Yamato Monogatari, which gives the same poem, explains that it was written by a man who, at the urging of his wife, had carried his aged aunt into the mountains on a moonlit night and abandoned her there. The next day he regretted his action and brought her back home. The mountain became known as Obasute-yama, the Mountain of the Deserted Crone. However, Fujiwara Toshiyori is reported in the thirteenth-century book of criticism Mumyōshō to have said that the poem was composed by the old woman herself, as she gazed at the moon from the place where she was abandoned. Zeami followed the latter version.

Evidence in other sources indicates that at certain times and places old people were indeed taken out into the wilderness and left there, probably in order to conserve the limited food supply of a village. A small body of literature exists on this theme, going down to our time.

The moon is prominently mentioned in many Nō plays, often as a symbol of Buddhist enlightenment, but no other play is as filled with moonlight as The Deserted Crone. Sarashina, the site of Mount Obasute, was famous for moon-viewing, and the action of the play takes place on the night when the moon is at its brightest, the "famous moon" of the eighth month. The entire fabric of the play is filled with the atmosphere of a longing melancholy under the "pure full disc of light." The moon descends, and as the play concludes the spirit of the old woman remains behind in the thin glow of dawn, a cold and lonely wraith unable to break away from mortal attachments to the world.

The Deserted Crone is performed by all schools except Komparu.

Lady Han, a play of the fourth category, is one of Zeami's most romantic works. In several No plays the shite goes mad with grief over the loss of her child, but Hanago is one of only two shite in plays of the current repertory who goes mad because of love. Even rarer is the completely happy ending.

No source for Lady Han has been found. Hanago's nickname, Hanjo or Lady Han, refers to Han Shōyo (Pan Chiehyü in Chinese), a poetess of the Early Han dynasty. The lady was a favorite of the Emperor Ch'eng Ti (e. 36-32 B.C.), but was eventually replaced in his affections by an even more celebrated beauty. The discarded favorite wrote a poem comparing herself to a fan in autumn. The round, white fan also resembles the moon, a typical sight of autumn. Zeami alludes to this poem again and again in the course of the play. Other allusions to Chinese poems in the collection Wakan Rōei Shū ("Collection of Japanese and Chinese Poems for Recitation Aloud") and to Po Chü-i's famous Everlasting Lament sustain the Chinese mood of the imagery.

Lady Han begins with a long kyōgen passage. This unusual expository device was given special dramatic value by Zeami. The waki part is unusual too: Instead of being a priest or a courtier, the waki is Hango's lover, Yoshida. Any suggestion of romantic love was generally avoided on the Nōo stage, and the part of one of the lovers would be taken by a child in order to remove erotic overtones, but Yoshida is a full romantic character. Some scholars, however, have suggested that the part of Yoshida may originally have been played by a child, and that the waki role was assigned to a traveler or some other character not now in the text, but this remains conjectural.

The play is considered to be about a madwoman, a standard variety of fourth-category plays, but Hanago's madness does not express itself in lunatic behavior. She is obsessed with her memories of the lover who failed to return, so much so that she fails to recognize him when at last she sees him again. Her madness seems to express itself also in an exaggerated form of a typical literary device of No, the accidental associations of words. Saying the words itsu made, "until when," carries her to itsumadegusa, the name of a plant; then to the dew that settles on the plant; then to the time it takes for the dew to evaporate; then (from the shortness of that time) to her main theme, her love and its brevity; then to mention of famous lovers of the past; and finally to what appears to be an attempt to check herself in her rambling, the question as to how we know today what words the lovers of the past exchanged in private. Certainly such chains of associations are not unique to plays describing "madness," but they contribute in Lady Han to its atmosphere of distraught love.

Lady Han is performed by all schools of No.

The Reed Cutter belongs to the fourth category of plays. It is generally attributed to Zeami, though he may have adapted an older work. The source of the story is the Shūishū, an imperial collection of poetry compiled in the late tenth century. Two poems with their prose preface supplied the outlines of the story: "When a certain woman went to Naniwa for a purification ceremony, she met on the way a man who had formerly been her lover. He was now a reed cutter, and presented a most peculiar appearance. Somewhat disconcerted, she remarked that they had not met for a long time. The man replied,

As I cut reeds without you
I knew I had been wrong;
Life here by Naniwa Bay
Has grown so melancholy.

She answered,

You did no wrong.
'Fare thee well,' we said,
As our parting words:
Why should life by Naniwa Bay
Have grown so melancholy?"

A much fuller account is given in the tenth-century poem-tale Yamato Monogatari. A wellborn couple has fallen on hard times. The husband urges the wife to seek employment in the Capital, promising he will join her if his own fortunes improve. The wife succeeds in finding a position in a nobleman's household, and the nobleman eventually marries her when his wife dies. But she continues to worry about her former husband, and goes to Naniwa to look for him. Their old house has vanished, but she finds the husband, attired like a peddler and selling reeds. When she offers to buy his reeds the man recognizes her and, ashamed to be seen in his humble appearance, runs off and hides in a hut. The lady sends a servant after him, but he refuses to come out. Instead he and his wife exchange the poems translated above. She also gives the man her outer cloak before she returns to the Capital alone.

The play modifies the Yamato Monogatari story, especially in its ending. It is unusually long, and abounds in plays on words and allusions to old texts. It is notable also for its sympathetic treatment of marital love.

The Reed Cutter is performed by all schools of Nō.

Tatsuro Ishii (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "Zeami on Performance," in Theatre Research International, n.s. Vol. VIII, No. 3, Autumn, 1983, pp. 190-206.

[In the essay below, Tatsuro explores Zeami's insistence that performances of Nō must consider such factors as the time, the location, and the audience in order to be successful. According to Zeami, the critic observes, a "good performer … is not only sustained by his inborn talent and incessant training but also is the one whose instinctive judgement and creativity harmonize with the mood and atmosphere at the very moment of each performance. "]

Since the survival of Noh theatre at the time of Zeami (1363-1443) and Kanami depended entirely upon the support of its audience, which consisted mainly of laymen, warriors and nobles, it was essential that each presentation had its own unique beauty and power enabling each performance to become an unrepeatable idiosyncratic event. In particular, Zeami demands that each performance will attain the goals of hana (the flower, i.e. a strangeness and novelty in beauty that will attract the audience) and yūgen (a mystic quality of beauty and elegance) on stage. In order to achieve these goals, he provides us with a great deal of suggestive and analytical ideas from various points of view, ranging from precise technical comments to pure metaphysical concepts.

Zeami appears to have been well conscious of the fact that training is one thing and performance quite another. A performance is forced to change because of the many distinctive elements which structure each individual presentation. In Kadensho, we first encounter Zeami's thoughts on the singularity of events in a performance when we read of in (yin) and yō (yang), a dualistic principle which is considered to permeate the entire space of a performance.

Although the concept of yin/yang presents itself in both Taoism and Confucianism, its origin can be traced back to a philosophy which predates both in ancient China. The yin/yang doctrine teaches that all phenomena in the universe are brought into being by the interactions of two opposing, yet complementary forces; they are the universal polarities and one cannot stand alone without the other. The yin principle symbolizes the negative, centrifugal, passive, dark side of nature, and the yang symbolizes the positive, centripetal, active and light side. Evidence of the yin/yang principle can be seen everywhere and at every time. Some common examples are cold/hot, winter/summer, water/fire, wet/dry, night/day, repose/movement, etc. Since yin and yang are reciprocally co-existent, not exclusive, they must be accepted simultaneously.

Zeami takes this principle of yin and yang, and applies it to Noh performance. He tells us that the accomplishment of a presentation comes about only when all its elements are in harmony with this principle. Zeami goes on to point out that it is of particular significance to be aware of the yin/yang concept in which a performance is to be given and that an attempt must be made to balance that context in accordance with this principle.

It is a good policy, for instance, that when a Noh performance is to take place during the day, the mood of the presentation should be that of yin, i.e. quiet and re-strained, since this would balance the natural daytime spirit of brightness and activity. Conversely it would be quite appropriate for an evening performance to be in the yang mood, for then the spirit of the audience would be more subdued and the presentation should be able to balance that with a bright and active performance. How-ever, it should be kept in mind that these are merely examples which are meant to illustrate a more fundamental and flexible principle, which points out that the performers of Noh should constantly be aware of the ever changing mood of the audience and of the variables which go into making up the performance space, and adjust themselves accordingly so as to attain harmonious balance of yin and yang.

Zeami states quite positively that without this proper harmony of yin and yang, the performance can neither enhance the audience's interest nor achieve success. The harmony of yin and yang in his speculations is quite clearly indicated by the conditions in which all the essential elements of a performance, such as actors, audiences, time, space, etc. are coordinated with each other in a complementary symbiotic fashion, which leads to the 'achievement' of a performance.

It is quite natural for us to expect that if the various contributing elements of a performance are in their optimal state, the result should approach excellence. How-ever, Zeami in the latter part of Kadensho discusses the possibility of an unsuccessful performance even when the performer and the text are of excellent quality. This question of why a performance based on a good text and executed by an expert performer sometimes fails to achieve success is one which remains unresolved by Zeami throughout his works, and shows up in ShūgyokuTokuka which is separated by more than twenty years from Kadensho where it was first posited. In ShūgyokuTokuka he states: 'Even though an expert performer gives a superb performance, there may exist a superiority or inferiority in the performance depending upon where or when it takes place. This might be due to the unharmonious balance of yin and yang between the mood of the performance and the atmosphere of its environment.'

It appears that for Zeami a performance should maintain a fluid quality somewhat like water so that it may be poured into the metaphorical vessels of time and space. A performance of Noh in Zeami's mind, unlike the impression we get from today's Noh performances, must have been much more flexible and spontaneous. There should be a number of indeterminate variables delicately at play even within the context of strictly defined and stylized form. Noh performance must bring to each occasion a developed sense of spontaneity. This idea is made clear in the last section of Kadensho:

The sutra says, 'Good and evil are not dual; right and wrong are one.' How can we fix the essential distinction between good and evil? We can only regard that which satisfies the need of the moment as good and what does not as bad. Also concerning the variety of styles in this art, the style which is selected according to the people and the place and the day and in conformity with general present preference is the Flower for it satisfies the need. While people here appreciate one style, there people enjoy another. This shows that the conception of the Flower varies with the person and the mind. Which of them can we define as being the genuine Flower? Know that only that which satisfies the need of the occasion is the Flower.

The idea of achievement or fulfilment in the performance becomes clearer as we begin to understand the harmonious balance which needs to be attained in the physical and metaphysical dynamics of yin and yang and the related structural elements of jo/ha/kyū. The delicate interaction between the diachronic aspect of jo/ha/kyū and the synchronic aspect of yin and yang is one worthy of a further explanation. Jo/ha/kyū (introduction-development-climax), being time based and applied to every aspect of performance, is intended to engender a sense of completion through a development process over a certain period of time, whereas the principle of yin and yang is more of an atmosphere or mood which allows a performance to materialize.

The element of time in Zeami's writings takes into account the effect on the performance space brought about by chronological changes such as day, night, and the seasons. For example, if we take into consideration the fact that in the era of technological simplicity where lighting effects were realized through the use of torches, it is easy to imagine that a day performance was drastically different from one taking place at night. Climatic conditions would also have affected the mood of a performance since a great number of performances took place outdoors.

The element of space is most elaborated upon in Kadensho. It can be divided into two categories, one being the district where a performance takes place, i.e. urban or rural, the other being the actual physical structure of the theatre itself, such as the residence of a noble, a temple or a shrine etc.

Judging from some passages in Zeami's works, it appears that some form of competition among different troupes of performers was occasionally carried out, which may have been somewhat similar to those held in the era of ancient Greek theatre. It is through these competitions that we are introduced to another dualistic concept, medoki (female time) and odoki (male time), the context of which can be thought of as being close to that of the yin/yang principle.

Medoki and odoki respectively refer to the bad or good luck which may dominate the time and space of a match or game. When luck is against a particular player and everything he does turns out negatively, he may be in medoki. On the other hand, if his luck is favourable and everything turns out positively, he is in odoki. Zeami tells us—and it is by and large believed by the Japanese people—that on the occasion of a long contest the odoki and medoki change sides from time to time. A performer should be moderate and temperate in his performance at the time of Noh competition when he thinks he is faced with medoki, and wait patiently for the momentum to shift, at which time odoki will return to his side and his performance and choice of plays to be performed will be greatly improved.

Both concepts of odoki/medoki and yin/yang in Zeami's treatises show us that there is some unseen power of time working in this universe, against which man should not struggle. If time functions in accordance with its own laws, a performance of Noh is not so much a creation opposed to time as a delicately evolving process developing in harmony with time. In Kadensho Zeami wrote succinctly: 'Be humble in the presence of time.'

The basic purpose of the yin/yang principle in his works lies in his desire to keep the performance as flexible as possible so as to guard a performer from becoming completely influenced by his own creative consciousness while ignoring all the other elements that surround him; this power is generated by every element which exists in the space of each performance—the particular season, day or night, locale, theatre, audience and so on.

Although time and discipline are demanded for the acquisition of the various styles and forms and there seems very little room in this mosaic structure for the individual creativity of a performer, it becomes increasingly apparent that the ultimate spirit of Noh theatre consists of a great degree of freedom within the performance. The principle of yin and yang in Zeami's writings also seems to reveal another lifelong desire, that is, to link the performance of Noh theatre to something beyond the human realm.

One of the characteristics seen in Kadensho and later treatises of Zeami is that the art of performing in Noh is examined from the perspective of an audience. It is also interesting to note a subtle change in his notion concerning the relation of performance and audience as he matures. Although the audience is an indispensable component in all styles of theatre, there are very few theoreticians of theatre who take it as seriously as Zeami does, and who are willing to give it the degree of consideration that we find throughout his works.

Zeami insists on the intellectual and emotional balance that must be maintained between the audience and performers. The more profound and internalized a performance becomes, the more narrowly it appeals to the people. The ideal relationship between a performer and his audience is one in which an actor performs from the point of view of the audience, and the audience sees the performance from the standpoint of the performer. Therefore, certain demands are put on the spectator in order that he may gain a profound level of appreciation of Noh theatre.

His first essay, Kadensho, can be characterized by the use of frequent references to the audience, and by its emphatic awareness of the audience in the presentation of Noh theatre. We can imagine that Zeami must have hoped a performance would have a mesmerizing effect on an audience much in the same way as an ancient shaman would have on the people around himself. Hana, which is the central concept of Kadensho, is nothing but this effect which arouses the feelings of novelty, strangeness and interest in the mind of an audience; these are all somewhat similar qualities to those brought about by the actions of a shaman.

The main features of Zeami's ideas on the audience in Kadensho can be summarized as follows: (1) it is imperative that Noh theatre gain the support of the masses; (2) a performer should pay particular attention to the nobility; and (3) a definition of the distinction among the various classifications of the audiences.

Zeami presumably inherited the idea that the art of Noh has to be supported by vast public esteem from his father, Kanami, who mainly performed in the rural districts and had to be supported by the general public in these areas. Noh theatre, says Zeami, must impress even the 'foolish eye.'

In this area, public favour and esteem afford the blessings for the establishment of the company. Therefore, performance exclusively in a style too inaccessible to the ordinary audience will again cause failure to win the public. For this reason, the way of obtaining the blessing is that, bearing in mind your novitiate in the Noh, you perform the Noh in a manner varying with the circumstances, so as to impress even the foolish eye as something indeed interesting.

We have to take into consideration the fact that, in the period of Kanami, when the present form of Noh was gradually taking shape, the performance of Noh theatre was quite free of any style and form. The theatre existed mainly for the entertainment of the general public, not for any privileged sectors of society.

Zeami, on the other hand, had the strong support of the Shogun, Yoshimitsu, the most powerful man of that period, whose attention he gained at the age of twelve. While under his patronage, he began the refinement of the various aspects of Noh theatre by deepening its artistic quality with an added emphasis on the elements of dance and music. Zeami, unlike his father, enhanced his artistic sense in urban aristocratic culture, and it is reasonable to assume that he must have found cognoscenti of his work among the nobility and warriors of the period.

Zeami, then, was faced with the problem of trying to resolve two apparently contradictory ideas, one that the art of Noh must please the masses, the other that somehow it should remain centred on the nobility. This invites a comparison to the idea in Nātya-Sāstra, an ancient Indian theory of theatre and dance, that a drama must appeal to all the different elements within a society.

A drama teaches duty to those who go against duty, love to those who are eager for its fulfilment, and it chastises those who are ill-bred or unruly, promotes self-restraint in those who are undisciplined, gives courage to cowards, energy to heroic persons, enlightens men of poor intellect and gives wisdom to the learned.

However, with the concept of rasa we can see the concern that Indian theoreticians had with the problem of mass appeal versus elitist recognition:

Just as well-disposed persons, while eating food cooked with many kinds of spice, enjoy its tastes, and attain pleasure and satisfaction, so the cultured people taste the Durable Psychological States while they see them represented by an expression of the various Psychological States with Words, Gestures and the Sattva, and derive pleasure and satisfaction.

Although we may feel that it was ambivalent or contradictory for Zeami or Bharata to deal with the problems of elite and mass audiences in the manner we have discussed, we can conclude that it was their sincere desire that a theatre should gain mass favour while at the same time realize that the fullest appreciation could be achieved only by a minority of the spectators. Neither yūgen nor rasa is a concept that is expected to affect the members of an entire audience. Another significant concept of Zeami, hana, may fulfil this function more readily since its emphasis lies primarily in the external visual stage effects.

It is astonishing to notice how Zeami states in Kadensho that the mature performer who has acquired a variety of skills should be able to satisfy people whose level of appreciation may vary ranging from the connoisseur to those who entirely lack a sense of appreciation. He is quite emphatic on this point:

It is difficult for the expert to conform to the mind of the non-critic and for the amateur to please the eye of the critic. It is no wonder that the amateur does not please the eye of the critic. But that the expert does not conform to the mind of the non-critic is because of what is lacking in the eye of the non-critic. Nevertheless an enlightened expert who is an actor of many skills will perform the Noh in such a manner as to be interesting even to the eye of the non-critic.

When Kadensho was written, Zeami was at the peak of his career. He had experienced many different facets of Noh theatre as a critic and theoretician as well as performer. Since he realized that the success of each performance totally relied on the reaction of the audience, he was extremely sensitive as to the quality of the spectators and their critical ability. It is worthwhile to be aware of the many delineations of spectators Zeami set forth in Kadensho:

  1. Spectators who enhance an audience

jōkon jōchi—people who have refined sense and good appreciative ability

mekiki—spectators who have a good critical eye

makoto no mekiki, shinjichi no mekiki—spectators who have an excellent critical eye

  • Spectators whose interest in the theatre is superficial

mekikazu—people who do not have a critical eye

  • Spectators in the countryside (negatively used)

ongoku denja no hito, denja ongoku—people in the suburbs or in the countryside

denja yamazato no katahotori—people in the countryside and in a hamlet among the hills

  • Aristocratic spectators


jōhō (sama)—people of the higher class

  • Spectators in general


kenbutsu no jōge—spectators of both higher and lower class

kenjo—(having a dual meaning) spectator's seats or spectators

miru-hito— people who see and hear

shonin—people in general

yosome—other's eye

teki, tekikata—enemy (used as a simile of spectator)

In his later works Zeami was apparently more interested in the degree and profundity of a performance itself with less regard to the reaction of an audience than in the time of Kadensho. Such various expressions for the nuances of an audience as we have seen in Kadensho disappear, and one begins to notice an emphasis on the inviolability of the art itself.

This does not mean that he had totally abandoned any consideration for the audience. On the contrary, he was just as aware of the audience as he was in Kadensho, but it seems clear that he was no longer concerned that a performance must impress and interest even the eye of a fool. We can catch a glimpse of his state of mind in the following statement in Kakyō written in his early sixties, which shows this subtle change: 'Speaking of Noh criticism, people's tastes vary. Therefore it is never easy to please everyone.'

One of the reasons why Zeami underwent this change of attitude is that the critical level of the audience increased as he himself matured. Zeami tells us at the end of Shikadō, which was written at the age of fifty-eight, that con-temporary audiences of the nobles had so refined their critical abilities that they began to criticize even small defects in the performers, who therefore were unable to satisfy them unless they possessed an equivalently developed sense of yūgen.

Generally speaking, the audience in Zeami's later works is not merely there for the performers to impress, but it acts as a guard against the performer becoming self-complacent and not maintaining an objective standpoint. The audience which has the ability to function with good critical sense is somewhat like the chisel of a sculptor acting on the mind and body of the performer rather than on stone. Zeami's most significant concept regarding the consciousness of an audience is that of riken no ken, where he maintains that a performer should gain the perspective of the spectator in order to perfect his performance.

In Sarugaku-Dangi, which is a collection of Zeami's instructions and remarks on Noh theatre written by his son when Zeami was sixty-eight, we may be surprised at an utterly pessimistic statement of his concerning the audience; that people in the future would be unable to appreciate the profundity of a play like Kinuta. The question can be asked as to whether Zeami had entirely lost his trust in the audience after having gone through a difficult period, where he had lost the patronage of the Shogunate and much of his support from the nobility as well. Is it possible that he felt himself to be the only one with qualifications necessary to be a member of a Noh audience, during this period of distrust and disillusionment?

In summation, Zeami's awareness of the audience could be roughly represented in terms of two categories which are the public vs. the nobles, and the critics vs. the non-critics. Although we can perceive a subtle change in his awareness of the audience as he matured (going through difficulties both social and personal as well as experiences as a performer, playwright and thinker) his consistent ideal on the conditions necessary for a good Noh performance throughout his life remained unchanged. It can be best put as follows: a good actor should perform the best play possible for the most appreciative audience that can be found.

The careful consideration and attention which Zeami gives to the classifications of the audience finds its way to his investigation of what he referred to as toki no chōshi (the spirit of time). If a performance is to proceed in accordance with the yin/yang mood that surrounds the performers, it should not begin merely because of a precise attention to the particular time or because of a one-sided decision on the part of the performers, but the commencement of the performance should be guided by the following suggestions put forth by Zeami in Kadensho:

  1. It should begin only when the performers have properly grasped the audience's psychology so that they can react to it.
  2. For practical reasons, since Noh theatre was supported primarily by the nobility, care should be taken to begin a performance with their arrival whether it was early or late.
  3. If it appears that an audience is restless and is not quite ready for a performance, the voice and movement of the actor should be more emphatic than usual so as to calm them down.
  4. Only an experienced performer knows whether the audience is alert or inert and is capable of making the decision to initiate the action of the play.
  5. The performer should take into account the different moods of day and night.

The first item may be the most interesting of all from the general point of view of the performance: we are told that when the audience is impatient, the performer can take advantage of that opportunity to enter and recite his lines, with the result that the entire audience will be in tune with the 'spirit of time' and the performance stands a better chance of being successful.

The beginning of the performance, or the moment when the shite performer begins the chanting in his first appearance, is more elaborately explained in Kakyō. When the performer appears and stops on the hashigakari, he has to pay attention to the entire audience, and his first words should be uttered right at the moment when all of them are waiting for it on the edges of their seats. Thus the performer penetrates into the tension or expectation in the spectator's mind, and the proper moment of his first utterance is perfectly united with that expectation. The performer must catch this moment instinctively for, if he misses it, he will lose the spectator's attention. It is that point in time where one performer draws the majority of an audience's eyes and minds into himself, and is the most crucial moment of the day.

What then is the 'spirit of time' and how does being in harmony with it aid in leading to a successful performance? The original Japanese phrase for the 'spirit of time,' toki no chōshi, can also be rendered as the 'condition of time' or the 'mood of time' or the 'tone of time,' This toki no chōshi sounds somewhat mysterious, but it appears that Zeami places much importance on it as an essential element of the performance space. He must have sincerely believed in toki no chōshi throughout his life, judging from the fact that this phrase also appears again in some various works of his later period, such as Kakyō, Shūgyoku-Tokuka, and Sarugaku-DangL

In Kakyō, Zeami puzzles us with an elaborate explanation of toki no chōshi which sounds somewhat pedantic. According to this passage, toki no chōshi refers to five different modes in music applied to four seasons and certain hours of the day and night. They are sojō, ōshikichō, ichikotsu-chō, hyō-jō, and banshiki-chō (the ending of each word, chō or jō, means the mode, which were adopted from the tonal system of Gagaku, ancient Japanese court music imported from China). To apply a particular mode of Gagaku to a particular time of day or season was then customary as if that period of the day or season had its own tone inseparably related to the mood or atmosphere.

We are also given another rather abstruse explanation on the spirit of time in the same chapter of the book: 'Toki no chōshi refers to the moment when the tone from heaven reaches the earth and harmonizes with it on the occasion of dance and music performed by heavenly beings.'

Though both explanations are mystic, we can at least say that toki no chōshi, like yin and yang, is the belief that there are certain dynamics beyond human reach working in time and space, and the performance must be in accord with them. It cannot succeed if it ignores those dynamics in nature. In Shūgyoku-Tokuka, Zeami repeats that there can be no psychic exchange between a performer and the audience if the tone of the performer's lines is not in accord with toki no chōshi. Since nature cannot be expected to adjust itself to the performer, he must adjust the tone of his voice to the dynamics of the various elements of nature in that particular time and that particular space. We see here that what is denoted as toki no chōshi is actually close to the spirit of the yin/ yang concept.

Though the nuance of each term differs, the concepts of toki no chōshi, yin/yang, and odoki/medoki are basically the same in that these concepts see the existence of unknown natural dynamics that control space and time. The yin/yang principle is concerned with both time and space. Toki no chōshi and odoki/medoki are originally concerned with time, but they also deal with space, since time and space are inseparable. These concepts are the ones which point out the necessity of arriving at a balance whereby one lives with nature, not against it, and which should enable a performance to have within itself an accord with beauty and order of nature.

What has been gained by the constant, rigorous training and discipline is not presented as it was practised but must be adjusted to the time and space of that particular day, since it is only the ultimate event of the performance itself from which the audience will make the final judgement as to its artistic value. A good performer, therefore, is not only sustained by his inborn talent and incessant training but also is the one whose instinctive judgement and creativity harmonize with the mood and atmosphere at the very moment of each performance.

If the form and style of Noh theatre still leaves some indeterminate and flexible elements on the day of the performance in order to create a mysterious tension in the theatrical space, the written text is handled somewhat differently; its content remains exactly the same in the performance as well as in the rehearsal period. The basic presentational style of Noh theatre is through dance and music (buka), but the written text is essential. If the text is to be presented to the audience exactly in the same way as the playwright had written it, how is writing a play related to its presentation on stage?

Zeami, as is generally well known, was a genius as a play-playwright as well as a theorist, performer and director. Besides some twenty treatises on the art of Noh theatre, Zeami had written a great number of plays, perhaps as many as two hundred. What totally differs from the present situation is that Zeami seemed to have thought it extremely important for a performer to be a playwright too:

If the Noh playwright and the actor are different persons, the actor cannot play according to his wishes, however skilful an actor may be, whereas in his own compositions, he can sing and act as he thinks fit. Therefore, one who is capable at all of performing the Noh, if he has literary talent, will be able to compose Sarugaku with ease. This is the life of this art. This being the case, however skilful an actor may be, if he has not any Noh of his own composition ready, it is as if a man who is a match for a thousand appears on the battlefield unarmed.

Ideally a Noh performer, therefore, should be one who is capable of verbalizing his poetic image as a playwright and bringing it to a physical realization as an actor.

Zeami's idea on the relationship between playwriting and performance is succinctly expressed in two notions, kaimon and kaigen in Nōsakusho (On the Art of Play-writing), which was written in his early sixties, and which provides us with deepest insight on playwriting. Kaimon is concerned with the auditory function of performance, and kaigen with the visual function. Both of them have to do with the conditions necessary to bring about the climactic moment in the performance. These conditions have to be met in either the ha or kyū section of a play.

Kaimon, which literally means 'to open the auditory function,' 'to open the ear,' is the moment when two different elements of the auditory experience are harmoniously united in the audience's mind. One element is what impresses the audience by the literary or poetic image of the play which conveys the spirit of the original story that the play is based on. Another element is the musical expression by which the words are chanted. In other words, kaimon can be interpreted as the climactic moment aroused in the audience's mind when the literary impression of the play, which is logical, and musical impression of the play, which is emotional, are felt simultaneously.

Kaigen, on the other hand, is the climactic moment which is brought about by the total visual effect of the stage such as dance and vigorous movement of the performers. However, we can be assured here that it does not refer to the mere superficial stage effect at all but to the superb artistic quality achieved by the performer. Since kaigen is primarily realized by the actor, not by the playwright, it is not basically related to the text of the play. Nonetheless the effect of kaigen should be considered throughout the process of playwriting because it cannot come into effect without certain passages in the text that makes it possible.

Two Kinds of Climactic Moments in Performance

Kaimon: Kaigen:
auditory visual
playwright performer

Kaimon and kaigen are Zeami's analytic tools which he applies to the climactic moment of a performance, and to the way it is created. It is interesting to note that Zeami divides the nature of the climactic moment and the emotional excitement on the part of the audience into two separate aspects, the auditory and the visual. We can easily imagine that at the moment when these two aspects are joined together, there is the capability of imparting the ultimate climactic impression upon the mind of an audience. The climactic moment may be simply a very few seconds in the presentation of one play, nonetheless both a playwright and a performer have to be well conscious of this short period of time, and endeavour to achieve its realization.

Senmon-goken, which appears in Kakyō, is another notion having to do with the consideration of a performance from the point of view of the auditory and visual function. It is this concept which advises actors to recite their lines first, then follow with their body movement, so that the audience may hear first and then see. The physical movement should not come before the words, nor should they come simultaneously. Zeami seems to mean that if the movement comes first it is against the fundamentals of acting, because an audience gains the sense of achievement when the cognitive function is somewhere between the processing of data from these two sensory faculties. Though we wonder whether this senmon-goken could be applied to the modern Noh theatre whose theatre space differs from Zeami's period and also where the audiences are generally much more familiar with each play, the concept which asserts that acting should finish in visuality is worth paying attention to.

The important ideas which show Zeami's concept as regards the relationship between the degree of achievement of a performance and that of the appreciative quality of an audience are the ones called ken/mon/shin in Kakyō and its related notion, hi/niku/kotsu in Shikadō. The idea of ken/mon/shin is unique and significant since a performance is analysed from the standpoint of a performer and an audience simultaneously with consideration to visual, auditory and psychic performances respectively. Ken (to see), mon (to hear), and shin (heart), each refers to a different quality of a successful performance depending upon whether the performance has appealed to an audience visually, auditorily, or spiritually.

Ken refers to a good performance which is visually various and effective. Buka (dance and music) may be particularly impressive in a performance which conforms to requisites of ken. In this kind of a performance the spectators' attention is drawn on to the stage soon after the beginning of the show, and they are struck by the richly colourful stage effects. Non-critics as well as connoisseurs are equally capable of appreciating it. However, in a performance which contains this quality of ken, everything tends to work out so well and it interests spectators so much that the performance is apt to become flimsy, being in danger of leaving a superficial impression on the audience. A performer, therefore, should restrain his gestures and movements, giving the audience some moment of repose, and trying to show the most interesting scenes in a quiet manner.

Mon, on the other hand, is performance based on the auditory faculty, and has a sober, subtle atmosphere from the very beginning. The chanting and the music with which it harmonizes present the audience with a tranquil atmosphere. Mon is also produced when an expert actor creates his own artistic world. An excellent performer is capable of presenting a performance of this kind without any technical endeavour, a variety of effects coming out of his mind naturally. An actor, in playing this Noh of mon, should be careful so that the performance will not look downcast and dispirited because of its suppressed quiet beauty. This type of performance can be appreciated only by connoisseurs who have a sophisticated eye, not by self-indulgent critics.

The highest level of performance, shin, is still further beyond the sensuality of visual and auditory faculties. A great master can impress upon his audience a mood of lonely desolation without letting the spectators become aware of his strong influence on them. This level of performance can only be mastered when every technique and artifice of Noh have been assimilated into the sub-conscious of the performer. Shin touches the audiences' heart spiritually and psychically in quiescence and loneliness. It is a performance where a communication from psyche to psyche is possible, but it is only possible by an expert of the highest rank who has acquired the mind of nothingness (mu) similar to that spoken of in Zen Buddhism, since he has to be free from any consciousness of his attempts at performing.

Zeami tells us that among even the most experienced connoisseurs there are some who cannot appreciate this highest level of performance. The audience as well as the actors must be sophisticated and appreciative enough to enjoy this level of the performance art. Noh is an art which places demands on an audience to maintain constantly the development of its sensibility to that art. A sophisticated audience sees the performance and senses the heart of the performer much in the same way as a good actor in performance senses the heart of the audience.

In Shikadō, we are introduced to another triple concept which is known as hi/niku/kotsu. This notion in turn congruently is related to the idea which we saw in Kakyo known as ken/mon/shin. Hi, niku and kotsu (literally translated as skin, flesh, and bones) were originally the terms used in the traditional calligraphy when one's handwriting was likened to the constitution of the human body. Zeami adapted these terms to the three different styles of a performer's art. They are explained as follows:

The display in this art of the special powers which have enabled one to become a master-actor naturally, by virtue of inborn abilities, may be designated the bones (kotsu); the display of the perfect powers which have come from study and experience of dancing and singing (buka) may be called flesh (niku); and an appearance which exhibits these qualities at their highest pitch, with perfect gentleness and beauty, may be termed the skin (hi).

Ken (to see)

  • visual
  • richly colourful stage effect
  • non-critics as well as connoisseurs can appreciate

Mon (to hear)

  • auditory
  • tranquil
  • an expert performer
  • only connoisseurs can appreciate

Shin (spirit)

  • spiritual
  • lonely, desolate
  • a superb master
  • can be appreciated by only a select few among the connoisseurs themselves

Hi (skin)

  • beauty and gentleness

Niku (flesh)

  • dance and music

Kotsu (bones)

  • inborn abilities

In Shikado, we are told that there are no contemporary performers who are possessed of these three different levels at the same time, and that some performers are not even cognizant of their existence. Performers may reach the level of hi at best, but more often than not it is superficial, not genuine. A performer who has mastered all the levels of hi/niku/kotsu is absolutely beyond any technique and artifice, and is able to give a purely enchanting performance quite easily. The audience is endlessly attracted and interested by this type of performance and becomes enraptured.

Both ken/mon/shin and hi/niku/kotsu, as we have seen, refer to the different levels of quality in a performance. However, unlike the nine rank differentiation system set forth in Kyūi which deals with levels of performance both positive and negative, both of the above triple concepts, which are dealt with in the chart, are concerned with only the positive aspects of a successful performance. We can, therefore, assume that ken/mon/shin and hi/niku/kotsu correspond only to the upper ranks of the nine ranks in Kyūi. Even the lowest ranks of those notions, ken and hi seem to contain a quality of yūgen and hana in themselves.

We have to recall at this point what Zeami mentioned in Kadensho: shiore (the drooping or withering of a flower) is on a higher level than hana, though to acquire hana is prerequisite in Noh. Shiore is a metaphor of a performance which may not be visually as rich and appealing as hana, but which is oriented more to an internal, solitary atmosphere. Accordingly we will not find it difficult to notice that what hana is to shiore is analogous to what ken is to mon and shin.

In other words, Zeami attaches more positive, aesthetic importance to the tranquil, internal feeling of withered trees in winter than gay, flowery ones in spring. A performance which is plain without any kind of ostentation and yet has an internal psychic dynamic is ranked more highly than the one which has external, visual effects that attract every member of an audience.

Here we have to note one other major difference between the nine ranks of Kyūi and ken/mon/shin. It is the fact that in ken/mon/shin, the appreciative ability of an audience and the way in which it is involved with the performance are both taken into account. While shin, the highest level of a performance, can be appreciated only by an extremely limited number of spectators in an audience, ken is capable of pleasing everyone ranging from connoisseurs to non-critics.

Zeami desires a performer to become deepened and sophisticated by years of training to the point where even some experienced connoisseurs cannot appreciate his performance. However, he, at the same time, never ignores a certain style of performance which is artistically successful and yet which pleases a mass audience. One of the ways to keep having an aesthetic development constantly in the art of Noh performance without losing the interest of the public and non-critics is to possess and perform various styles of acting ranging from the rough to the sophisticated, and from the visual to the psychic, etc. This variety is like the incessantly changing variety of nature. Nature never stays the same. If man is part of nature, a performance created by man is to be in tune with it developing with its infinite diversity and disappears into its eternal rhythm.

James R. Brandon (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "Japanese Noh," in Staging Japanese Theatre: Noh & Kabuki, edited by John D. Mitchell and Miyoko Wantanabe, Institute for Advanced Studies in the Theatre Arts Press, 1994, pp. i-v.

[In the following excerpt, Brandon presents a broad overview of the form, content, characters, and staging of No plays and discusses Zeami's role in the drama's development.]

Between the tenth and the thirteenth centuries, performers of a number of Japanese theatre forms vied for audience attention and for the patronage of Buddhist temples and the court in and around the important cities of Nara and Kyoto. Jugglers and acrobats, singers of epic romances, and players of various kinds of short plays and dances especially those known as dengaku, literally field music, and sarugaku, monkey music—were part of the theatre scene. Both dengaku and sarugaku troupes performed sketches, songs, and dances, but as independent pieces. Around the middle of the fourteenth century, the sarugaku troupe leader Kannami Kiyotsugu (1333-1384) introduced into his performances a sung dance section, the kusemai or kuse, thus for the first time giving the dance a genuine dramatic function. In the kuse section of a play, a crucial tale of the past is narrated as the protagonist dances out the story. Kannami's new way of performing was called sarugaku-noh, and in time this was shortened to Noh.

Kannami's son, the famous Zeami Motokiyo (1363-1444), was twelve years old when he was seen performing Noh by Yoshimitsu, the shogun, or military ruler of Japan. Yoshimitsu was captivated by the boy's beauty and grace, and he brought Zeami to the palace in Kyoto to be his catamite. Zeami spent most of his adult life at the court, even after his patron died. In the sophisticated atmosphere of the shogun's court, he raised Noh from a plebeian, almost rustic, theatrical form to an exceptionally subtle art. Zeami was not only the chief performer of his troupe (inheriting this position from his father) but also the writer of more than one hundred plays. And in a series of treatises on the practice of his art, he established the aesthetic basis of Noh. For four hundred years following Zeami's death, Noh troupes were supported by feudal lords in Kyoto and in the outlying provinces, thus preserving down to the present the texts of Noh and the style of performance as well. About two hundred and forty plays make up the Noh repertory that is performed today. Another two thousand or so plays have been written, but are not performed. Plays are divided into five groups according to subject matter and style: god (kami) plays, congratulatory pieces praising the gods; warrior (shura) plays, in which the protagonist is usually a slain warrior who appears as a ghost and relives his sufferings; woman (katsura) plays, in which the protagonist is a woman; miscellaneous plays—one type concerns a woman driven mad by grief for a lost child or lover, another a character who is obsessed, and a third, known as living person plays, an unmasked male protagonist; and demon (kiri) plays, in which the protagonist is a demon, devil, or supernatural figure.

A day's performance in Zeami's time was made up of one play from each group, staged in order, and interspersed with comedies called kyogen. A program of five plays was viewed as an artistic entity. Atmosphere, tempo, and tension changed perceptibly from one play to the next. The god play was quiet and dignified, the warrior play active and strong, and the woman play radiated elegant beauty. Increased tempo marked the fourth play, and in the demon play, a furious battle between demon and hero was resolved with the demon being killed or subdued—thus bringing the performance back to a congratulatory mood similar to that of the first play. Zeami wrote that the five-play series should be organized according to the principle of jo, or introduction (first play); ha, or development (second, third, and fourth plays); and kyu, or scattering (fifth play). According to Zeami, also, each play was to be organized into jo, ha, kyu—beginning, middle, end—with the same principle of artistic progression in mind. Significantly, the jo-ha-kyu concept is derived from gagaku court music, and not for literature.

Noh plays are deeply impregnated with the doctrine of Amida Buddhism, according to which human salvation is achieved through prayer and penance. The profoundly pessimistic Buddhist theme of the impermanence of life is common to a number of plays. … A noble warrior is slain before achieving his dream of conquest; a beautiful young woman eagerly sought after in her youth wanders alone in her withered old age. In Buddhist thought, the soul that clings to earthly attachments after death dwells in a purgatory of ceaseless torment. Plays of the second and third type concern these tortured souls.

Only a small number of characters appears in most Noh plays. In a text they are designated by their role-type and not by their character's name. The shite, or doer, is the central figure, and is usually an aristocrat, a court lady, or a powerful spirit. The shite completely dominates a performance; other actors are mere by-players. It is the shite who always performs the kuse dance and other important dances. Normally the shite is masked. The shite may have attendant courtiers, retainers, or maids (tsure). In the play there may be a noble child role (kokata) or roles for other minor characters (tomo), all of which are acted by lesser performers associated with the shite actor's school. The waki, or supporting role, is most often that of a priest who initiates the action or the play. Only rarely is the waki an antagonist to the shite. The waki may have attendants (wakizure), acted by performers associated with the waki's school. Kyogen actors play roles of villagers or other commoners (kyogen actors also perform the kyogen farces between two Noh plays).

Plays are presented on a raised stage, about eighteen feet square, with a highly polished Cyprus floor. Scenery is not used, but constructed props and hand props commonly are. A bridgeway (hashigakari) about thirty feet long, leading from stage right to the dressing rooms, is used for exits and entrances. The tempo of song and dance is regulated by accompanying music, played by musicians who sit in view of the audience at the rear of the stage. One flute, two hand drums (one large and one small), and in some plays a stick drum compose the small Noh ensemble. A chorus of six to ten actors from the shite group sits on the left side of the stage. Several other actors, disciples of the shite and sometimes of the waki, assist their teachers on the stage. They give and take away hand properties, adjust costumes, and move larger set properties. All performers in Noh are male.

The most important influence on the aesthetics of Noh theatrical art is Zen Buddhism. From austere Zen came the principle that suggestion is preferable to flat statement, that subtlety is preferable to clearness, that the small gesture is preferable to the large, that, in short, the secret of beauty lies in restraint. Beauty in Noh is refined and it is everywhere: in the chaste planes of the masks, in the simplicity of the stage, in the rigor of the line of musicians or chorus on the stage, in the quavering tone of the actor's chanting voice, in the elegant movements of the performers. Zeami described the unique beauty which Noh strives toward in two terms: mysterious and sublime. Mysterious beauty, or yugen, is the ephemeral beauty that lies in impermanence. The cherry blossom, delicate and fragile, is touched by the wind and in an instant is scattered and gone. Elegance is tinged with the sadness of passing. The sublime would appear to be Zeami's more mature view. In sections of Noh that suggest the sublime, melancholy over the impermanence of life gives way to serenity and acceptance. The beauty of the sublime is the beauty of old age, restful, at peace with the world. It is silent, austere. That such a theory of beauty was developed for a theatrical art must impress us deeply. Indeed, there is no other form of theatre in the world in which the externals have been more thoroughly abandoned in favor of elliptical, concentrated, austere expression.

Noh is not a storyteller's art; it does not (in most cases) present the unfolding of a human action. Rather, through recollections of the past, it evokes a mood, an emotion, a religious state. Human characters appear on the stage, but they are not three-dimensional figures living the usual round of daily routine. At the most extreme they are quite literally momentary manifestations of the spirit world; at the very least, they exhibit an unworldly degree of composure and restraint. Through the gradual increase in tension created by the steady musical accompaniment, the chanting of the chorus, and the formal movements of the characters, content is subsumed to form, until the knowledgeable spectator perceives the occurrences before him, not as emotionally bound human actions but as elegantly formed patterns of sound and color that impinge on his emotions peripherally if at all. Noh is the purest of the art forms of theatre and consequently makes the most demands on its audience.

Further Reading

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 322

Hoff, Frank. "Seeing and Being Seen: The Mirror of Performance." In Flowing Traces: Buddhism in the Literary and Visual Arts of Japan, edited by James H. Sanford, William R. LaFleur, and Masatoshi Nagatomi, pp. 131-48. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Explores Zeami's views on the relationship between actor and audience in performances of Nō.

LaFleur, William R. "Zeami's Buddhism: Cosmology and Dialectic in No Drama." In his The Karma of Words: Buddhism and the Literary Arts in Medieval Japan, pp. 116-32. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.

Traces the influence 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.

Sata, Megumi. "Aristotle's Poetics and Zeami's Teachings on Style and the Flower." Asian Theatre Journal 6, No. 1 (Spring 1989): 47-56.

Compares these two "superb theatrical treatises to which we owe much of our knowledge of tragedy and nō."

Shigenori Nagatomo. "Zeami's Conception of Freedom." Philosophy East and West 31, No. 4 (October 1981): 401-16.

Examines Zeami's theoretical writings to elucidate the playwright's definition of freedom as something that is achieved through artistic training.

Tatsuro Ishii. "Zeami's Mature Thoughts on Acting." Theatre Research International 12, No. 2 (Summer 1987): 110-23.

Scrutinizes Zeami's theoretical essays, which contain "the nucleus of his concepts on acting and performance based on his own experience and deep insights as a thinker, actor, director and playwright."

Ueda, Makoto. "The Implications of the Noh Drama." Sewanee Review LXIX, No. 3 (July-September 1961): 367-74.

Discusses the theme of sin and salvation common to many No dramas.

Waley, Arthur. Introduction to The Nō Plays of Japan, pp. 15-55. London: George Allen & -Unwin, 1921, 319 p.

Surveys the origin, development, and characteristic features of No, with particular reference to Zeami's artistic theories.

Illustration of PDF document

Download Zeami Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Zeami (Literary Criticism (1400-1800))