(Full name Kanze Motokiyo Zeami) Japanese essayist and playwright.
Zeami is considered the foremost nō dramatist and theorist, whose plays and treatises are largely responsible for transforming nō 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 in Nagaoka, Yamashiro Province, the son of Kanze Kiyotsugu (known as Kan'ami), an eminent practitioner of sarugaku, as nō was then called. As a child Zeami performed in the Kanze family troupe, which his father headed. There he attracted the notice of the shōgun Ashikaga Yokumitsu 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. In 1400 Zeami began writing his first treatise, Fūshikaden (1400-c. 1406; 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—who had assumed leadership of the troupe a decade earlier—was killed, possibly murdered. Yoshinori made Zeami's estranged cousin, On'ami, head of the family troupe. Two years later Zeami was exiled to the island of Sado for reasons that remain unclear, but possibly because of his opposition to On'ami. After the death of Yoshinori in 1441, Zeami was pardoned, and he returned to the mainland. He died two years later.
Of the 100 surviving plays attributed to Zeami, many, such as Aoi no Ue (before 1430; The Lady Aoi), Nishikigi (before 1430; The Brocade Tree), and Takasago (before 1423) remain essential works in the nō repertory. Establishing the canon and dating of Zeami's plays has been the subject of much scholarly investigation and debate. In Zeami's period playwrights' names were not typically attached to their works, and existing records of performances often do not provide titles; moreover, revision of earlier works and collaboration were common practices. It is only through references to his plays in Zeami's own treatises—which generally can be reliably dated—that scholars can extrapolate end dates for composition for a number of plays. It is through his twenty-some treatises that Zeami's influence has perhaps been most strongly felt. These works, intended as private texts for the training of actors in the family troupe, remained secret until the early twentieth century, when they were uncovered and published. The earliest treatise, Fūshikaden (1400-c. 1406), written to preserve Zeami's father's instruction, discusses the proper training of an actor, the relationship of the actor and the audience, and the structuring of plays. It also introduces the concept of hana, the flower, a metaphor that Zeami employs throughout his writings. Throughout his numerous other treatises, Zeami provides advice to actors on proper training techniques, lessons on how to compose music, methods of recitation, and hints for playing women characters effectively.
Historians and scholars of nō theater concur that Zeami, continuing the work of 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. Scholars note that the concept of yūgen—a complex idea that indicates beauty, grace and depth—was particularly important to Zeami. For him, yūgen was inseparable from nō and was the wellspring of its spirituality. It is this fusion of art and spirituality, critics agree, that lies at the heart of Zeami's greatness.