Kan’ami and Zeami Perfect Nō Drama Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Kan’ami and his son Zeami transformed the nature of Japanese theater by merging the existing popular form of sarugaku with samurai culture and Zen Buddhism, creating the vastly more refined and elegant form of Nō, which has survived for more than six hundred years.

Summary of Event

In the mid-fourteenth century, Japanese theater was largely if not exclusively a popular entertainment, and actors were outcasts. However, Kan’ami Kiyotsugu Kan’ami Kiyotsugu initiated a series of developments and refinements to the existing forms of dengaku (“rice-field entertainment”) and sarugaku (literally “monkey music,” an amalgam of entertainment forms emphasizing comical-pantomimic elements). By 1374, Kan’ami and his company were sufficiently established that they were invited to perform for the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu Ashikaga Yoshimitsu in Kyoto. The shogun was only a teenager at the time, but he had already developed the sophisticated aesthetic sensibilities that would mark his rule. [kw]Kan’ami and Zeami Perfect Nō Drama[Kanami] (1360-1440) [kw]Zeami Perfect Nō Drama, Kan’ami and (1360-1440) [kw]Nō Drama, Kan’ami and Zeami Perfect[No Drama] (1360-1440) [kw]Nō Drama, Kan’ami and Zeami Perfect (1360-1440) Nō drama Theater;Nō Japan;1360-1440: Kan’ami and Zeami Perfect Nō Drama[2870] Cultural and intellectual history;1360-1440: Kan’ami and Zeami Perfect Nō Drama[2870] Literature;1360-1440: Kan’ami and Zeami Perfect Nō Drama[2870] Kan’ami Kiyotsugu Ashikaga Yoshimitsu Zeami Motokiyo

The performance was an enormous success. Not only did the shogun appreciate the grace and elegance of the actors, but also he was impressed by the skill—and the physical beauty—of Kan’ami’s eleven-year-old son, Zeami Zeami Motokiyo , who performed the kokata (child actor) role. Thus began a personal as well as professional relationship between the most powerful political figure in the country and the family that was to transform the nature of traditional Japanese theater. The relationship between Yoshimitsu and Zeami gave the actor and his father political cover for the kinds of reforms they were attempting. Also, the tastes and predilections of the shogun were at the center of Kan’ami’s and Zeami’s transformations of the form. Zeami, in particular, took advantage of the opportunity not only to meet and converse with the most influential courtiers but also to observe outstanding performances in music, dance, and other means of artistic expression. Music;Japan

Not surprisingly, however, the apparent homosexual affair between the shogun and a mere actor led to rivalries and jealousies. After Yoshimitsu abdicated the shogunate, Zeami’s political stature waned—largely because the new shogun, Yoshimochi Minamoto Yoshimochi (ruled 1395-1423), preferred a rival actor named Zōami, whom Zeami himself also admired—and the process of decline accelerated after the death of Yoshimochi in 1428. Ultimately, Zeami was exiled to the island of Sado in 1434 and is said to have ended his life as a Buddhist monk. The drop in Zeami’s personal fortunes seems to have been idiosyncratic, however: His nephew Motoshige (better known as On’ami On’ami ) and son-in-law Komparu Zenchiku Komparu Zenchiku (Zeami’s chosen successor) became popular with later shoguns, and Nō retained its status as elegant court entertainment for centuries.

Today, Kan’ami and Zeami are both regarded as among the foremost actors, theorists, and playwrights of Nō. Nō plays were constantly being adapted and revised throughout the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, so it is often difficult if not impossible to attribute a particular Nō play to a specific dramatist. Still, it is certain that many of the best-known and most compelling Nō plays were written by either Kan’ami or Zeami—or, in many cases, adapted by Zeami from an original work by his father. The two men were unquestionably at the forefront of a movement to raise the literary value of Nō; indeed, many of their plays rank among the most evocative works of poetry in any language. Kan’ami was also responsible for changes in the dramatic structure of existing texts and for integrating new forms of both music and dance into the Nō. Thus, he is generally credited with being the first playwright of what is now called Nō.

A Nō play, however, is only partially about the dramatic text. To attempt to comprehend a Nō play based only on its words is at least as risky a proposition as trying to understand the true nature of a Western opera solely on the basis of the libretto. Nō (the word simply means “skill” or “ability”) is the synthesis of a host of source elements, including folk dance, poetry, court music, Buddhist (especially Zen) thematic material, popular entertainment, and Chinese drama. There are often allusions to works of literature or historical and legendary figures: The seemingly casual assurance that spectators will understand such references simultaneously flattered and affirmed the cultured samurai audience. Similarly, the religious and philosophical elements of the Nō style not only supported the court but also were intended, in Zeami’s words, as a “means to pacify people’s hearts, to bring about a sense of contentment and to promote a long life.”

Probably the most important advance in Nō attributable to Kan’ami and Zeami is the fusion of the aesthetic principles of monomane Monomane (roughly akin to the Greek “mimesis,” but perhaps better translated simply as “role playing”) and yūgen yūgen[Yugen] . This latter term is difficult to translate, but refers to a transcendent, mysterious, depth of feeling, a sense of grace and harmony. At the most fundamental level, the concept of yūgen links the Nō theater to other, preexisting elements of Japanese aesthetics, most notably the notion that what is implied is of greater import than what is presented more overtly. This subtle quality of evocation is apparent in both the written texts and in the performance style, which is stately, elegant, and—by Western standards, at least—extremely slow.

The fullest articulation of the aesthetics of Nō comes in Zeami’s theoretical writings, begun in approximately 1400 and continued throughout the rest of his life. Originally intended as secret treatises to be read only by the successive leader of the Kanze school of Nō, these essays are collectively referred to as the Fūshikaden (teachings on style and the flower) or the Kadensho Kadensho (Zeami) (English translation, 1968; literally, the book of the transmission of the flower). The central image here is of the flower, which represents the pinnacle of aesthetic expressiveness: a synthesis of the physical, the vocal, and the spiritual. The actor’s job, then, is to nurture and develop his delicate flower from his first training at the age of seven through youth, maturity, and ultimately old age. Of significance are both the emphasis on the spiritual nature of performance and the link to the natural world. For example, Zeami, one of the first to articulate the aesthetic principle of jo-ha-kyu (“slow, medium, and fast,” with the sense of “exposition, development, and climax”), regards the concept as a natural extension of the physical world.


Nō theater is one of the oldest continuously performed art forms in the world, considered so important to world culture that the Allied occupation force actively supported its reintroduction after World War II. Apart from its intrinsic value, Nō has also influenced such modern musical and theatrical artists as Benjamin Britten, Ezra Pound, W. B. Yeats, and Robert Wilson. Nō is both a means of entry into the court life of the Muromachi period Muromachi period (1336-1573) and the distillation of Japanese aesthetics. The refinements wrought by Kan’ami and Zeami in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries form the basis for everything Nō was to become: They were the foremost playwrights, actors, and theorists not only of their day but also in the entire history of the form.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brandon, James, ed. The Cambridge Guide to Asian Theater. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Comprehensive overview of traditional Asian theater forms.
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    xlink:type="simple">Keene, Donald, ed. Twenty Plays of the Nō Theater. New York: Columbia University Press, 1970. Translations of some of the best-known Nō plays, with an introduction by Keene.
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    xlink:type="simple">LaFleur, William R. The Karma of Words: Buddhism and the Literary Arts of Medieval Japan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983. Includes two chapters devoted largely to the parallels between Nō and Buddhist thought.
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    xlink:type="simple">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.
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    xlink:type="simple">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.
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    xlink:type="simple">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’s theoretical work and an extensive commentary.
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    xlink:type="simple">Tsubaki, Andrew T. “Zeami and the Transition of the Concept of Yūgen: A Note on Japanese Aesthetics.” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 30, no. 1 (Fall, 1971): 55-67. Explication of yūgen, one of the most problematic terms of Japanese aesthetics.
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    xlink:type="simple">Waley, Arthur. The Nō Plays of Japan. New York: Knopf, 1922. Important early work includes translations of nineteen plays and an introduction.
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    xlink:type="simple">Zeami Motokiyo. Kadensho. Translated by Sakurai Chuichi, Hayashi Shuseki, Satoi Rokuro, and Miyai Bin. Kyoto: Sumiya Shinobe Publishing Institute, 1968. One of Zeami’s most influential treatises.
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    xlink:type="simple">Zeami Motokiyo. On the Art of the Nō Drama: The Major Treatises of Zeami. Translated by J. Thomas Rimer and Yamazaki Masakazu. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984. Translations of Zeami’s most important theoretical work; includes a 30-page introduction.

Categories: History