Zeami and theories of acting

For Zeami the actor-audience relationship is paramount and acting techniques are designed to bring a about a deeply satisfying experience for spectators of the performance.

They combine the PRAGMATIC with a sense of PARADOX

• Feelings should transcend particular given circumstances and allow the viewer to see the essential nature of the character beyond a level of sentimental heroism.

• Performance also seeks the unification of mind and body directed towards a single purpose.


Zeami provides a number of specific techniques:

• The less done the better. “What is felt by the heart is 10: What appears in the movement is seven.” “Violent body movements: gentle foot movement.”

• Perform according to the ideal of the “relaxed heart looking afar”.

• “Zeami warns the actor who plays the old man’s part against merely imitating the decline in physical appearance, and encourages him rather to express the man’s desire to stay young.”

• Training is essential.


Kanze Hisao:

I want to exist on the stage as a flower might, one which by chance has just happened to blossom there. Each member of the audience too sits brooding over various images of his own. Like a single flower. The flower is alive. The flower must breathe. The stage tells the story of the flower. (cited in Hoff ATJ (Vol 2. No. 1) 1985, 16

Gunji Masakatsu:

Eyes through which he look become those of the kami that is looking. The mask is looking.

Five categories of Plays:

i. Celebration Plays. God (Shite) praises peace and prosperity in the land and dances in celebration.

ii. Warrior Plays Usually drawn from the Tale of the Heike (Battle b/w Taira & Minamoto clans during the Heian Period).

iii Women's Plays Little action and expression of beauty

iv. Mad person plays. Somebody is grieved by a tragedy that they are mad.

v. God/devil plays

Noh in history

Noh and patronage.

From Zeami’s time until the Meiji restoration Noh retained its associations with the ruling shogunal classes. It was patronised by various daimyo and was a feature of shogunal court life.

In the Tokugawa era (1600-1863) Noh became formalised along the lines that we know it today and has not changed substantially since then.

The shogunal authorities acknowledged the importance of such grant ceremony and hierarchical social organisation by recognising the four Noh schools or “Za”:

Kanze, Hosho, Komparu and Kongo as well as the newer Kita-za.

Noh and Meiji

No shogun. The whole patronage system of the Tokugawa era collapsed.

Visit by Former US president Grant in 1879 fortuitous as he saw Noh and commented favourably.


During war Noh was favoured by the government in a revisionist formula that stressed patriotic themes.

After the war a Noh society called the NOGAKUDO and backed by the imperial family was established and this organisation continues the patronage of Noh. The National Noh Theatre was opened in 1967 as a permanent home of Noh and Noh research.

What is Kyôgen

Kyôgen enacts the ideals of crazy or mad (kyo) and words or speech (gen). It expresses an earthy, gentle, comedic sensibility through short plays about humorous situations found in everyday life.

More than 200 plays in the Kyôgen repertoire although some are rarely performed. Typically a play will last between 15 and 20 minutes duration and feature two or three characters; a Master and a Servant, a Husband and Wife, or a Priest and Parishioner are some examples.

Unlike the Noh, masks are rarely worn in Kyôgen and then only by ugly or monstrous characters. Costumes are bright and replicate styles of the imperial court and ruling samurai classes of the Muromachi period (1336-1573); both genres were patronised exclusively by this same class.

While Noh matured under the direction of Zeami (1363-1443) Okura Toraaki (1597-1652) is an equally important theorist-actor for Kyosan. Accordingly, the essence of Kyôgen is as follows:

the final purpose of Kyôgen is not to provoke laughter at any cost; it is better to be pleasant than comical; to be sublime and moving is even better. ... When, beyond humorous situations, the insight touches the essential limitations of the human condition in the cosmos, Kyôgen, like Noh, provides a way to reach the truth beneath the surface of the object; that is, the invisible essence of the object - a sobering truth that echoes the meaning of Zeami’s later interpretation of yugen, implying the cosmic sadness of being human. (Ortolani 153)

2005 index