Kanze Zeami (1364-1444), also called Zeami Motokiyo, was a Japanese actor, playwright, and critic. His theoretical works on the art of the No are as justly celebrated as his dramas.
It was the great esthete, statesman, and patron of the fine arts, the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, who discovered Zeami and his father, Kannami, a brilliant No actor. At a command performance of Okina, Kannami appeared before the Shogun and impressed him so favorably that he was at once named knight companion to Yoshimitsu, a considerable distinction. Kannami died in 1384 on tour. Zeami always spoke of his father in the most adulatory and respectful terms as a great actor, playwright, composer, and choreographer, for talent in all these capacities is required in the creation of a No drama.
Zeami first appeared before Shogun Yoshimitsu in a performance at the Imakumano Shrine in 1374. Before he reached his majority at 20, Zeami was considered an accomplished and polished performer. Upon the death of his father Zeami became the head of the troupe. Sometime in his early 20s Zeami entered the awkward age, when he was neither a charming youth nor yet the great artiste he was to become at the height of his fame.
Resolved to suffer the embarrassments of the awkward age, Zeami blossomed forth in his mid-20s as a serious actor of note. Zeami was not spoiled by his new success, for he realized that only with the passing of years and the coming of wisdom was the actor's true "flower" achieved. Perseverance and a life devoted to art were keys to the formula of his success.
Zeami wrote extensively on the art of the No in Kadensho (1400; On Transmitting the Flower); Shikadosho (1420; On the Way of the Highest Flower); and Nosakusho (1423; On the Composition of No). The No drama is a combination of many elements, rather like opera. It is a mixture of singing, dancing, orchestral accompaniment, and usually a dramatic theme expressed in poetry of a very high order. The actors are clothed in gorgeous brocaded robes and wear masks. One No play usually takes about an hour to perform. The play is constructed in three parts: jo, or introduction; ha, or development, an increase of the dramatic rhythm; and Kyu, the climax, in which there is usually a spirited dance.
There are five types of plays. A program might have one of each to present variety: god plays, hero plays, lady plays, contemporary or variety plays, and demon plays. Of all the different ingredients of the No play, it was the art of acting that Zeami wrote about in great detail, giving us a glimpse of the ideals and the reality of the life of the stage 600 years ago.
In the Kadensho Zeami is at pains to describe the virtuosity of his father so that later generations might know what a great and original actor he was. In this critical work Zeami stressed the importance of yugen as the most fundamental element of No. Yugen, which means elegance or grace, also means a special quality more real than apparent which transforms something common into art.
Zeami in his essays on acting expressed the opinion that a young actor, even eleven years old, has a certain charming quality which enhances his performance. His youthful appearance and voice help him to offset any criticism of his lack of finesse. If this emphasis on youth seems inconsistent with Zeami's insistence on the maturity and virtuosity of the accomplished actor, it must be noted that the Shogun himself was only a few years older than Zeami and was surrounded by a youthful entourage of samurai. Zeami was favored and cultivated by many because of his intimacy with the Shogun.
In addition to being assigned the authorship of some of the best-known dramas, such as Matsukaze, Eguchi, and Sotoba Komachi, Zeami is also credited with the No dance, kusemai, an important addition to the structure of a No play. Zeami was once assumed to have been the author of about half of the known repertory. Modern scholarship has now left him with about 25 of the finest, most artistic examples of Japan's classical drama.
Zeami reached the height of his fame when he appeared at Yoshimitsu's villa at Kitayama in a performance in honor of Emperor Go-komatsu in 1408. Within a few weeks Yoshimitsu had died of an illness, and the No had lost its most important patron. The next shogun showered his patronage on a rival actor. For some years after this Zeami seems to have fallen out of favor and to have spent his time composing dramas and writing criticism on the actor's art. In 1422 Zeami retired from the world into Holy Orders, leaving to his son the leadership of his troupe.
In later years both Zeami and his son Motomasa experienced the hostility of Shogun Yoshinori, while Zeami's nephew was shown preference. Father and son were not bidden to the palace of the Shogun and later were excluded from performing before the retired emperor. When Motomasa died in seclusion in the country, Zeami was inconsolable. His grief blighted the remaining years of his life.
The leadership of Zeami's school of the No passed to his son-in-law Komparu Zenchiku. In 1434 Zeami was banished to the remote island of Sado in the Sea of Japan. He remained there until the assassination of Yoshinori resulted in a general amnesty in 1441. Zeami then returned to Kyoto.
There is little on Zeami in English. For useful background see Arthur Waley, The No Plays of Japan (1921); Ezra Pound and Ernest Fenollosa, The Classic Noh Theatre of Japan (1959); and Donald Keene, with photos by Kaneko Hiroshi, No: The Classical Theatre of Japan (1966).