Zeami (Seami, Kanze Motokiyo) (ca. 1364–ca. 1443). Encyclopedia of Medieval Literature

Zeami is generally recognized as the most important
playwright in the tradition of Japanese N¯O
theater.He became so well known that at one time,
half of the 240 extant N¯o plays were attributed to
him, though modern scholarship has identified between
30 and 40 plays as indisputably his. He was
also chief actor of his company and the foremost
theorist of N¯o art, having written some 21 treatises
on the subject, most of which have been recovered
only in the 20th century.
Much of Zeami’s success came to him as a result
of his association with the Ash¯ıkaga shogunate, the
most powerful force in the Japan of his lifetime.At
the age of 11, while performing for the acting company
of his father Kan’ami at the Imakumano
Shrine in Kyoto, Zeami was observed and admired
by the 17-year-old shogun Ash¯ıkaga Yoshimutsu,
and quickly became the young shogun’s favorite
and companion. Zeami became head of his troupe
at the age of 20 upon the death of his father, but
the patronage and protection of Yoshimutsu gave
Zeami’s troupe financial security and a permanent
residence in the capital.Writing specifically to appeal
to Yoshimutsu’s refined tastes, and those of
other educated aristocrats in the capital, rather
than to the preferences of the masses, Zeami revolutionized
N¯o theater, changing it from a popular
entertainment to an elegant art form.
When Yoshimutsu died in 1408, Zeami’s privileged
position began to deteriorate. He continued
to write in the style he had developed under
Yoshimutsu, but subsequent shoguns did not share
Yoshimutsu’s tastes.Under the next shogun,Yoshimochi,
Zeami lost some prestige, but was fortunate
in that his daughter married the successful playwright
Komparu Zenchiku, whose success enabled
him to support his father-in-law as Zeami’s fortunes
declined. Under the succeeding shogun,
Yoshinori, Zeami’s nephew Motoshige became the
shogun’s favorite, and Zeami incurred Yoshinori’s
wrath when he refused to assist his nephew in his
new position. Zeami’s decline continued when, at
the age of 70, he was ordered to two years of exile
on Sado Island, for reasons that are unclear.
Zenchiku is known to have looked after his affairs
while Zeami was in exile. Precisely when Zeami returned
from his banishment is not known, but one
legend claims that he died in a Zen temple upon
his return.
Several innovations separated Zeami’s plays
from those of his predecessors. Instead of traditional
popular heroes, he chose his protagonists
from classical Japanese literature, such as the TALE
OF THE HEIKE or figures from classical HEIAN culture.
Zeami’s plays are less realistic than previous
plays, relying on unrealistic masks and costumes,
a virtually empty stage with only a few insignificant
props. More important, his plays achieve
their dramatic tension not from the confrontation
of characters so much as from the chief character’s
internal anguish. In a typical Zeami play, a
monk or other secondary figure encounters an
old man, who may relate the story of an ancient
battle that occurred at the spot where they are
standing. In the second part of the play, the monk
realizes that the old man is the ghost of some
dead warrior. The ghost begins a dance—a symbol
of his inner turmoil—as he relates and works
through an ancient obsession that prevents him
from leaving the mundane world and achieving
final enlightenment.
Zeami’s plays are still performed today. His
most anthologized play is ATSUMORI, a drama of
the type in which the protagonist (or shite) is a
warrior. The play, based on chapter 9 of The Tale
of the Heike, opens with an encounter between
the ghost of Atsumori, disguised as a grass cutter,
and the monk Rensh¯o, who had killed the 16-
year-old Atsumori in battle, and had become a
monk to leave behind that life of killing. The
ghost, fixated on his defeat and death and obsessed
with the man who killed him, has the opportunity
to avenge himself but in the end lets the
obsession go.
Izutso (The well-curb) is another of Zeami’s
most admired plays. In the genre called kazuramono,
or “wig piece”—that is, a play with a female
shite—this play focuses on the daughter of Aritsune
from the 17th episode of the ISE MONOGATARI (Tale
of Ise). The woman in the play struggles with her
feelings for her lost love Narihira, and relates her
love and memories of him. Ultimately she appears
in Narihira’s clothing. She goes to view her reflection
in the well, and imagines her lost lover returning
to her.
Zeami’s critical writings may have sprung
from a need to justify the new direction he was
taking the drama. In any case, of his 21 critical
treatises, Zeami’s best-known is his earliest,
F¯ushikaden (Teachings in style and the flower),
written about 1400–02. On the practical level, he
emphasizes the bare stage and simple props, and
regarding acting style, insists that actors should
underplay their emotions, advocating very subtle
gesture and movement. In terms of theory, Zeami
is extremely difficult to translate, as many of the
terms he introduces are quite ambiguous.He borrows
language from the classic treatise on Japanese
poetry (waka), Ki no Tsurayuki’s Japanese
preface to the KOKINSH¯U. Tsurayuki had declared
that Japanese poetry has as its seed (tane) the
human heart (kokoro). Zeami declares that in N¯ o
theater, the tane or cause was the performance,
while the kokoro was what he called the “flower.”
What he meant by “flower” is complex, but basically
he seems to mean the effect that the actor
produces in the audience.
Zeami’s most difficult critical term is y¯ugen,
his chief criterion for the art of N¯o. The term
refers to elegance and beauty but also to mystery
and depth. Thus the quality of y¯ugen denoted
emotion so subtle and profound that it could
only be implied. The value of implication expressed
in the concept of y¯ugen permeated Japanese
poetry as well as drama, and, in fact, was an
aesthetic ideal in all Japanese arts, from painting
to calligraphy. Thus the change in the course of
N¯o theater under Zeami was ultimately a change
that was in line with the direction of classic
Japanese aesthetics since the time of the
Hare, Thomas Blenman. Zeami’s Style: The Noh Plays
of Zeami Motokiyo. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University
Press, 1986.
Japanese N¯o Dramas. Edited and translated by Royall
Tyler. London: Penguin, 1992.
Rimer, J. Thomas, and Yamazaki Masakazu, trans.
On the Art of N¯o Drama: The Major Treatises of
Zeami. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University
Press, 1984.
Sekine, Masaru. Zeami and His Theories of Noh
Drama. Gerrards Cross, U.K.: C. Smythe, 1985.
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.