Zeami Motokiyo

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In addition to his plays, Zeami Motokiyo wrote a series of treatises on acting and playwriting, prepared for his family and his descendants, in which he discussed a wide range of topics, from styles of acting, singing, and gesture to matters concerning the philosophy of the theater and the complementary roles of playwright and actor in creating the sort of total theatrical experience he had in mind. The treatises do much to explain the aesthetics behind the individual dramas of Zeami that remain. In addition, he wrote a short essay on his life in exile, short verses (possibly sections of plays that are now lost), and a brief artistic reminiscence.


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As a young man, Zeami Motokiyo took the popular theatrical forms available to him as an actor, and through his education, the force of his will, and his insight into the theatrical process, mastered a highly disciplined and poetic theatrical form, the N , which not only became the central focus for the highest traditions in the Japanese theater of his period but also the model and the touchstone for all the developments that followed in later centuries. In a very real way, Zeami and his dramas remained a source of inspiration for poets and playwrights up to the twentieth century. Not only did later writers of the N continue to emulate his methods of composing plays, but Kabuki and puppet dramatists from the seventeenth century onward borrowed plots, characters, and settings from Zeami’s N dramas, often as a gesture of homage to the man whom they regarded as the greatest dramatist in the entire Japanese tradition. In the twentieth century as well, there was new interest in the work of Zeami. Modern Japanese dramatists such as Yukio Mishima have rewritten some of the old plays, finding in them the seeds of a contemporary consciousness, and Western writers and musicians from William Butler Yeats and Paul Claudel to Bertolt Brecht and Benjamin Britten have taken sustenance from these works to create their own modern versions of the N. For modern Western playwrights, Zeami, read in translation since the 1920’s, seemed the first and perhaps the greatest exponent of a form of total theater that combined text, movement, gesture, dance, music, and chant into one transcendental unity. Other practitioners of the N, notably Zeami’s father Kan’ami, began to approach this synthesis, but only Zeami fully attained it. For the modern Western reader, Zeami’s dramas have a particular power in their concentrated poetic language that, even in translation, makes these plays uniquely able to suggest a dramatic movement from the world of everyday understanding to the realm of the ineffable. No other writer in the long Japanese tradition of the N possessed quite this power of language. In this aspect of his work, Zeami, however gifted as an actor, singer, and theoretician, was truly singular.


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Brandon, James, ed. The Cambridge Guide to Asian Theater. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Comprehensive overview of traditional Asian theater forms.

De Bary, William Theodore, et al., comps. Sources of Japanese Tradition. 2d ed. Vol. 1. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001. 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.”

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

Ishibashi, Hiro. Yeats and the Noh: Types of Japanese Beauty and Their Reflection...

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in Yeats’ Plays. Edited by Anthony Kerrigan. Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1966. An interesting study of Japanese aesthetic influence.

Keene, Donald, ed. N: The Classical Theatre of Japan. Palo Alto, Calif.: Kodansha International, 1966. An authoritative, substantial study of N drama. With photographs by Kaneko Hiroshi.

Keene, Donald, ed. Twenty Plays of the N Theatre. New York: Columbia University Press, 1970. Includes good translations of Zeami’ 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.

Ortolani, Benito. The Japanese Theater: From Shamanistic Ritual to Contemporary Pluralism. Rev. ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995. Standard text for traditional and contemporary Japanese theater forms.

Ortolani, Benito, and Samuel L. Leiter, eds. Zeami and the N Theatre in the World. New York: Graduate School and University Center of the City University of New York, 1998. A collection of the papers presented at the Zeami and the N Theatre in the World symposium, held in New York City in October, 1997.

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.”

Sekine, Masaru. Ze-ami and His Theories of Noh Drama. Gerrards Cross, England: C. Smythe, 1985. An examination of Zeami and his views about N drama. Index.

Terasaki, Etsuko. Figures of Desire: Wordplay, Spirit Possession, Fantasy, Madness, and Mourning in Japanese Noh Plays. Ann Arbor: Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan, 2002. An analysis of six plays attributed to Kan’ami and Zeami. Bibliography and index.

Thorndike, Arthur H., III. Six Circles, One Dewdrop: The Religio-Aesthetic World of Komparu Zenchiku. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993. Includes translations of Zenchiku’ theoretical work and an extensive commentary.

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’ most influential treatises.

Zeami, Motokiyo. On the Art of the N 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’ treatises that deal with the essentials of acting.


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