Zeami Motokiyo

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Article abstract: A great actor and a great dramatist, Zeami was also an outstanding teacher of acting and a theoretician of theatrical aesthetics. He established the No (sarugaku) form of drama, which has survived to modern times.

Early Life

Little is known of Zeami Motokiyo’s birth and early life. His great-grandfather was the lay priest Keishin, Kamajima Kagemori, the lord of the fief of Asada in Iga Province. Zeami was the son of Kan’ami, an actor, playwright, teacher, and leader of the Yamato sarugaku troupe. His mother was Yasaburō Ukikujo, the daughter of a priest who was the lord of the fief of Obata. At a tender age, Zeami was put into the hands of Yasburō Katsukiyo, the leader of the Konparu troupe, to be trained as an actor.

During the late 1360’s and early 1370’s, Kan’ami’s genius began to be recognized, and he and his troupe became very popular in Kyoto and its environs. Soon Zeami was acting on the stage with his father, and the precocious youngster was attracting unusual attention. In 1374, the troupe gave a performance at the Daigoji Buddhist temple, southeast of the capital, that was witnessed by Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358-1408), who had become the shogun (generalissimo, or military dictator) at the age of ten. Almost seventeen years old and already an important patron of the arts, Yoshimitsu was amazed and enchanted by the beauty, charm, and talent of the eleven-year-old Zeami. As a result, the shogun became Zeami’s patron, as well as his friend and companion.

Yoshimitsu’s affection for Zeami was so openly displayed that some of the court nobility (kuge) were annoyed. They were particularly critical of the military nobility (daimyo) for trying to please the shogun by giving expensive presents to Zeami. Their objection to the intimate relationship between Yoshimitsu and the boy actor was not, as one might suppose, to any homoerotic possibilities in it but simply to Zeami’s low-class status as a commoner and an actor.

Ironically, Zeami was actually the descendant of feudal lords of the Ōta clan and of royal blood. This family of daimyo had descended from Minamoto Yorimasa (1106-1180), who was famous both as a poet and as a warrior. The Minamoto branch had descended from Sadazumi-shinno (874-916), the son of the emperor Seiwa. It had produced the three shogun families of Minamoto, Ashikaga, and Tokugawa. Kan’ami, however, had deliberately kept his family line secret from Ashikaga Yoshimitsu when he had founded his sarugaku dramatic troupe.

At least one old aristocrat was not repelled by the mixing of social classes at the court: the poet Nijō Yoshimoto, who proved an enthusiastic admirer of the young actor. A letter exists in which Yoshimoto expresses his delight in the company of Zeami, referring to him, however, by the name “Fujiwaka,” which had been conferred on him by Yoshimoto himself:

Should Fujiwaka have time, please bring him over with you once again. The entire day was wonderful, and I quite lost my heart. A boy like this is rare—why look at his renga and court kickball [kemari], not to mention his own particular art! Such a charming manner and such poise! I don’t know where such a marvelous boy can have come from.

In the same year (1378), the retired emperor Sukō, who had reigned at Kyoto from 1349 to 1352, was informed of a renga session held at Yoshimoto’s residence in which Zeami was a participant. As host, Yoshimoto would produce the first two lines of a proposed five-line poem. As guest, Zeami was obliged to produce the final three lines and link them...

(This entire section contains 3306 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

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

Get 48 Hours Free Access

to the first two. The emperor recorded his opinion of Zeami’s skill in his diary, stating that the boy’s linkages were “inspired” and copying a pair of the poems the two composed as examples. However inspired Zeami’s linkages may have been, they show that he understood thoroughly the rules forrenga compositions and sought to adhere strictly to them. This contest between a common teenager and a senior court noble required much self-confidence and poise on Zeami’s part.

In 1384, Kan’ami died at the age of fifty-one. Zeami, who was then twenty-one, was obliged to assume the responsibility of the leadership of the Kanze troupe.

Life’s Work

As leader of the Kanze sarugaku troupe, Zeami proved highly successful. Although he lost an important supporter with the death of Yoshimoto in 1388, he retained the patronage of Yoshimitsu. The first documented reference to Zeami—he was then known as Kanze Saburo—as an adult performer occurred in 1394, when it was said that he gave a performance during Yoshimitsu’s pilgrimage to Nara. In 1399, he gave two performances, both witnessed by Yoshimitsu. From 1400 to 1402, Zeami wrote his first treatise on the aesthetics of the Nō, Fūshikaden (also known as Kadensho; English translation, 1968), which purported to transmit the teachings of his father. In this work, he introduced the concept of ka, or hana, literally meaning “flower.” In his aesthetics, however, the symbol of the flower referred to the freshness and charm evoked by the actor’s performance. Zeami followed the lead of Kan’ami, who had chosen his stage name by selecting the first character of the name of the bodhisattva Kanzeon. Zeami selected the second character of the same name. The sound of this character was unvoiced as “se,” but, according to tradition, Yoshimitsu advised Zeami to voice the sound as “ze”; therefore, his name became “Zeami,” instead of “Seami.”

Yoshimitsu had abdicated the shogunate in 1395 in favor of his son Yoshimochi, who was then nine years old. Nevertheless, he continued to rule under the title of prime minister. Even when a year or so later he had his head shaved and became a bonze at Toji-in, a Buddhist temple of the Shingon sect, he still ruled from the splendid palace at Kitayama, which the people called Kinkakuji, or Golden Temple. During an emperor’s visit there in 1408, a sarugaku performance was given in which the Kanze troupe no doubt took part. Not long after this performance, Yoshimitsu died (1408), at the age of fifty. Thus Zeami lost the powerful ruler who had been his friend and patron for so long.

Although Zeami faced competition for the shogun’s favor from other acting troupes, he and his Kanze players fared well during most of Yoshimochi’s rule (1408-1428). In 1422, at the age of fifty-nine, Zeami retired as leader of the Kanze troupe. He immediately took Sōtō Zen vows to become a lay Buddhist priest. His gifted son Kanze Motomasa succeeded his father as the leader of the Kanze troupe. At this time, also, Konparu Zenchiku (1405-1468) must have married one of Zeami’s daughters. Actor, playwright, and critic, he was to become a model son-in-law to the aging Zeami. It should be recalled that Zeami had a connection with the Konparu troupe as a young child, a tie which no doubt accounted for his daughter’s marriage to Zenchiku.

Upon the death of Yoshimochi, his brother Yoshinori was chosen to succeed him. With the advent of Yoshinori’s shogunate, Zeami and his sons began to be treated badly. In 1429, Yoshinori sponsored a grand sarugaku performance at the Kasakake Riding Grounds. Two Kanze troupes participated in this competition against two other troupes. This performance was odd in that it was done in the style of Tōnomine, the mounted characters riding live horses and wearing real armor. Motomasa and Zeami in some way displeased and angered Yoshinori. Not long afterward, the shogun retaliated. He ordered that both of them be excluded from the Sentō Imperial Palace, which was the residence of the retired emperor. No sooner had they been banned from the palace than Onnami, the son of Zeami’s brother Shirō, began to perform there. Further, in 1430, Motomasa had the musical directorship at the Kiyotaki shrine taken from him. It was then conferred on Onnami. Motomasa was now apparently forced from the capital. He retired to Ōchi, in the province of Yamato.

Zeami’s troubles continued. Later in the year 1430, his second son, Motoyoshi, who had been acting with the Kanze troupe, became discouraged with his career as an actor, apparently believing himself lacking in talent. He thereupon retired and took Buddhist orders. Worst of all for Zeami was the death of Motomasa in 1432. It seems probable that Motomasa had been banished from the capital because of suspected ties with the southern dynasty. Perhaps fear for his life made him retire to the protection of the lord of Ōchi. Shortly before his death, he gave a performance at the Tennokawa shrine, not far from Yoshima, where the southern dynasty had established its court. Following his performance, he said a prayer and left a mask at the shrine. Afterward, he died in the province of Ise, possibly the victim of murder. Zeami not only grieved for his dead son but also worried that no one would carry on the Nō tradition and the subtle art he had made of it.

Perhaps as important as any political factors that might have made Yoshinori reject Zeami and his sons was the refusal of Zeami to recognize the shogun’s favorite as Motomasa’s legitimate successor. Yoshinori was deficient in elegant, stylish knowledge (yabo). He lacked the connoisseurship (tsū) required to appreciate the kind of artistry practiced by Zeami. Before he became shogun, his favorite theatrical performer had been Enami. After Enami died in 1424, Yoshinori supported Onnami, because he liked the demonic plays he regularly presented. Demonic plays depended more on realistic miming than on symbolically significant acting, dancing, and words. Zeami rejected demon characters altogether in his Nō drama. Furthermore, he rigidly opposed Onnami’s becoming leader of the Kanze school and refused to turn over the Kanze secret treatises to him, giving them to his son-in-law Konparu Zenchiku instead. Onnami considered himself a legitimate member of the Kanze school. He had chosen his stage name by selecting the third syllable of the Kanzeon name, just as Kan’ami had taken the first and Zeami the second. Zeami once stated that the Kan’ami-Zeami artistic line had been brought to an end with Motomasa’s death, and, in his short treatise Kyakuraika (1433; the flower of returning), Zeami was even more adamant on this point. Zeami’s opposition to Yoshinori’s will must have angered the shogun considerably. Despite Zeami’s resistance, Onnami eventually became leader of the Kanze school.

At any rate, in 1434, Yoshinori banished Zeami (then seventy-one years old) to Sado, a large island on the west coast of Japan which for years had been a place of exile for important personages. How long he lived on Sado and when he returned to the mainland—if he did return—is unknown. It is certain that he was exiled for at least two years, for he left a record of his exile in Kintōsho (1436; the book of the golden isle). This work consists of eight pieces meant to be recited and sung in the Nō style, and their formal character keeps the reader at some distance from Zeami’s personal experience. He discloses no bitterness over his fate and views himself as part of the tradition of the personages who had also been exiled on Sado. Toward the end of his collection, he even adopts a hopeful and lighthearted tone. One tradition affirms that Zeami sent this collection to his friend Ikkyū (Sōjun), a notable Renzai Zen Buddhist priest and poet in Chinese, for editing. Ikkyū, also a friend of Konparu Zenchiku, is said to have given Zeami’s pieces to the emperor, who was so impressed by them that he pardoned Zeami. If this legend is true (it appears plausible enough), then Zeami probably returned to the mainland about 1437. According to tradition, he died in Kyoto in 1443.

Zeami had a high reputation as an actor in his time, but his acting method and style can only be imagined from his plays. As a playwright, he excelled. Not only are his plays well received in modern time but they are also superior in literary value to other extant Nō plays. Although some ninety Nō dramas have been attributed to Zeami, only about twenty can be specifically identified as his; about thirty-five others, however, can be considered almost certainly his. Occasionally Zeami did adapt the plays of others to suit his own purposes. Also, the sources of Nō plays were strictly conventional, and the playwrights typically chose material from specific classic Japanese narratives (which often included poems), as well as from certain ancient Chinese and Japanese verse.

Typical of those plays which are specifically identified as Zeami’s or which can reasonably be considered his are Atsumori (English translation, 1921), Hanjo (Lady Han, 1970), Kinuta (English translation, 1917), Kiyotsune (English translation, 1955), Oimatsu (The Old Pine Tree, 1962), Sekidera Komachi (Komachi at Sekidera, 1970), Tadanori (English translation, 1934), Takasago (English translation, 1955), and Izutsu (The Well Curb, 1917).

Practically nothing was known of Zeami’s important contributions to aesthetics until the beginning of the twentieth century. Between 1908 and 1909, Yoshida Tōgo discovered sixteen of Zeami’s critical treatises. He published these as Nōgaku koten: Zeami jūrokubushū (1909; “Zeami’s Sixteen Treatises,” 1941-1942). In 1945, Kawase Kazuma discovered seven additional Zeami texts, which he published as Tōchū Zeami nijūsambushū (prologue to Zeami). Two of these texts are spurious, and one is fragmentary. A more accurate version of one of these, Shūgyoku tokka (finding gems and gaining the flower), was discovered in 1956, and a full version of the partial text, Go on (five sounds), was published in 1963. In 1984, J. Thomas Rimer and Yamazaki Masakazu published an excellent English translation of seven of Zeami’s better-known texts that treat the essentials of acting.

Zeami used the term “flower” (ka, or hana) as one of his central concepts and “mystical beauty” (yūgen) as another. By hana, he meant the effect the actor ought to have on his audience. By yūgen, he meant the ideal beauty the actor ought to exude from within himself. Yūgen would be evident in the grace of his movements, in the elegance of his clothing, and in the gentleness of his voice. The word Nō literally meant “ability,” or “talent.” As a dramatic form, Nō grew out of both dengaku, or field music, and sarugaku, or comic entertainment, to become sarugaku no nō, or Nō. There are two types of sarugaku: Nō, a kind of opera combining acting, dancing, and singing, and kyōgen, an improvised comic drama with some singing and dancing. Nō employs a stylized literary language; kyōgen uses colloquial language. The actors in Nō wear masks, but in kyōgen they do not. In Nō the characters are supernatural beings, famous men and women of the Heian period, and celebrated warriors. In kyōgen, the characters range from daimyo and their followers to monks, thieves, artisans, and peasants.

It was Zeami who developed Nō in a direction different from the sarugaku of his father, Kan’ami. He avoided the confrontation of two characters and developed dramatic tension from the anguished self-examination of one. He developed an economy of presentation that amounted to asceticism, since it was a transposition of aesthetic values through the medium of secularized Buddhism. His critical treatises were designed to pass on his tradition to his heirs. To Zeami, art was a way toward human perfection.


Building on his father’s work, Zeami Motokiyo revolutionized the Nō drama. He made it respectable, an entertainment for the elite. He also pointed the way to its perfection. The idea of yūgen figured more prominently in his Nō than in Kan’ami’s. The severe training that Zeami demanded of his students derived from the “difficult practice” of secularized Zen Buddhism as opposed to the “easy practice” of Pure Land Buddhism—burning incense, prayer, recitation of the Buddha’s name, and reading of Scripture—so popular with the masses. This difficult practice required discipline, asceticism, composure of body and mind through silent meditation, and the disappearance of the self. It appealed to the samurai class. Zeami replaced the traditional heroes of the masses with the warrior heroes—Atsumori, Tadanori, Yorimasa—or with the classical figures of Heian court culture.

In addition to his fine plays, Zeami left critical treatises both on the aesthetics of Nō and on the art of acting. Although he inherited the affective-aesthetic poetics of Ki no Tsurayuki’s preface to the Kokinshū (c. 905), with Tsurayuki’s terms kokoro (heart), tane (seed), and kokoba (words), he went beyond Tsurayuki’s idea that Japanese poetry takes the human heart as its seed, or effecting cause. Zeami held that in Nō the seed was artistic performance (waza). In Nō performance, the yūgen (mystic beauty) issued from the human heart and produced the hana (flower). Zeami replaced Kan’ami’s monomane, or realistic miming, with the idea of the actor fulfilling a role by intuitive feeling and artistic acting.

The Nō drama survives in present-day Japan, and even the Kanze school is still existent (a Nō performance in modern times, however, is much slower than it was in the medieval era). Nevertheless, some 250 plays constitute the present repertoire. There are god plays, warrior plays, woman plays, lunatic plays, revenge plays, and some other kinds. Further, the Nō has influenced twentieth century Western drama, most notably through the works of William Butler Yeats and Ezra Pound.


Hare, Thomas Blenman. Zeami’s Style: The Noh Plays of Zeami Motokiyo. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1986. Superb study of Zeami’s career and artistic contributions.

Ishibashi, Hiro. Yeats and the Noh: Types of Japanese Beauty and Their Reflection in Yeats’ Plays. Edited by Anthony Kerrigan. Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1966. An interesting study of Japanese aesthetic influence.

Keene, Donald, ed. No: The Classical Theatre of Japan. Palo Alto, Calif.: Kodansha International, 1966. An authoritative, substantial study of the No drama. With photographs by Kaneko Hiroshi.

Keene, Donald, ed. Twenty Plays of the No Theatre. New York: Columbia University Press, 1970. Includes good translations of Zeami’s work.

Nippon Gakujutsu Shinkokai, trans. The Noh Drama: Ten Plays from the Japanese. Rutland, Vt.: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1960. Excellent translations by the Japanese Classics Translation Committee.

Nogami, Toyoichiro. Zeami and His Theories of Noh. Translated by Matsumoto Ryozo. Tokyo: Hinoki Shoten, 1955. Deals with the ideas of Zeami’s Fushikaden, or Kadensho.

O’Neill, P. G. Early No Drama: Its Background, Character, and Development, 1300-1450. London: Lund Humphries, 1958. Important treatment of early No drama essential for understanding how No survives today.

Pound, Ezra, and Ernest Fenollosa, trans. The Classic Noh Theatre of Japan. New York: New Directions, 1959. One of the landmarks in the introduction of Japanese theater in the West. Despite Pound’s lack of knowledge of Japanese, he has an intuitive understanding of the sensitivity to the spirit and form of No.

Ryusaku, Tsunoda, et al., eds. Sources of Japanese Tradition. Vol. 1. New York: Columbia University Press, 1958. Includes excellent translations of important Zeami treatises, such as “On Attaining the Stage of Yugen,” “On the One Mind Linking All Powers,” “The Nine Stages of No in Order,” and “The Book of the Way of the Highest Flower.”

Yeats, William Butler. Plays and Controversies. Rev. ed. New York: Macmillan, 1924. Contains Yeats’s four plays for dancers and the music for At the Hawk’s Well (1916) and The Dreaming of the Bones (1919). The influence of Zeami is clearly present in these works.

Zeami, Motokiyo. Kadensho. Translated by Sakurai Chuichi, Hayashi Shuseki, Satoi Rokuro, and Miyai Bin. Kyoto: Sumiya Shinobe Publishing Institute, 1968. One of Zeami’s most influential treatises.

Zeami, Motokiyo. On the Art of the No Drama: The Major Treatises of Zeami. Translated by J. Thomas Rimer and Yamazaki Masakazu. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984. Excellent translations of nine of Zeami’s treatises that deal with the essentials of acting.