Zeami Motokiyo Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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 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....

(The entire section is 650 words.)