Zeami Critical Essays


(Drama Criticism)

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

(Drama Criticism)


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]


(The entire section is 341 words.)

Overviews And General Studies

(Drama Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 23884 words.)

Further Reading

(Drama Criticism)

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.


(The entire section is 322 words.)