The Historical and Biographical Aspects of Zeami's "Atsumori, Tale of a Heike Play" and "The Death of Atsumori" from Tales of the Heike

Research done by: Jason Pettaway (Engl 231.043)

Time Line : 14th-15th century Japan; based in the cities of Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto

  • The initial rise in power for Taira ( heiki) is followed by a long series of defeats.
  • 1183- Beginning of abandonment of the capital by Taria Yoritomo ( leader of Minamoto); gained control of Kanto or eastern region. Taira had fallen back to the inland sea.
  • 1184- Leadership change --Yoshinaka is defeated and eliminated by Yoritomo, his half brother in a Major battle at Ichi-no-tani near Kobe
  • 1185- Last of Taria forces are crushed at Dn-no-ura in a sea battle rokudai, last potential heir of the Taira clan is captured and executed. This war between the Taria and the Minamoto marks an important beginning of the medieval period and is the basis if the Tales of Heike.Noh flourished during Zeamiís time under the support of the military shogun Ashika Yoshimitsu.
  • 1371-The oral performance eventually won upperclass acceptance and became a major performing art, reaching its height in the mid 15th century.
  • ( 1603-1912) Marks Edo period; Tales of the Heike became the fundation for a numberof important kabuki and joruri (puppet) plays making it most influential works of premodern japanese culture. Noh also became the official performance art of the military goverment. Military lords throughout the country supported their own troops.
  • (1868-1912) during the societal reforms of the Meiji period Noh lost its govermental support; it nearly died out enough but performers regrouped and found private sponsors. It was popular in the medieval period
  • Today Noh, cannot be described as a popular art among Japanese as a whole but there are 1,500 professionals still in existence.

Author Biographical Background

  • Tales of the Heike is an oral narrative describing the rise and fall of the Heike Clan.
  • These tales were chanted by blind reciters they received enormous popularity at the beginning of the medeval period Atsumori is Zeamiís adaptation of a famous episode from the Heike tales.
  • The author of "Death of Atsumori" is Zeami Motokiyo ( 1364-1443) A.K.A. Kanze Motokiyo
  • He was a aesthetician , actor and playwright. In addition to writing brilliant plays and his major theoretical work, he wrote practical instructions for actors to establish the Noh theatre as a serious art form.
  • Zeami received his education by his father who was also an actor.
  • The father son team established the Noh theater.
  • Zeami was very sucsessful and surpassed his father by performing for Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, the shogun of Japan.
  • He later adapted his style to a mixture of pantomime and vocal acrobatics that entertained the japanese for hundreds of years.
  • Scholars attributed nearly 50 plays to Zeami. (Zeami Motokiyo)

Historical background of text

  • Noh is the oldest form of Japanese drama still being preformed.
  • Primitive forms of Noh started in the 14th century but Kanami (1333-1384) and his son Zeami ( 1363-1443) shaped the genre as it is today
  • The word Noh means Talent or Skill A central principle Noh drama is Yugen which means (mystery, depth, darkness, beauty, elegance)
  • Zeami portrayed the imitation of a concealed truth which is defined as "the art of the flower mystery. Noh plays encompass dance, song, and dialogue.
  • The plays are generally categorized into 5 groups according to the character.
  • 1 plays about gods
  • 2 warrior plays
  • 3 plays about women
  • 4 miscellaneous plays (all plays that donít fit elsewhere)
  • 5 demon plays/ ending plays
  • Many of the most popular plays today are 2 act dream or ghost dramaís introduced by Zeami; these dramaís have religious functions, usually the pacification of vengeful or unenlightened spirits."Atsumori" is in this form.
  • All of the traditional roles are performed by males, categorized into 4 types.
  • Another component of Noh plays is the Chorus.
  • The Stage consists of a square that is 19x19. Most of the actors were masks except for children and living male characters.
  • Noh costumes are noted for there creativity and design.
  • Movement on the stage is choreographed and very slow and highly stylized.
  • Dance is performed with music, either alone or with chorus.
  • Noh has a chanting style that is divided between speech and song.

Synopsis of Plot

Heike story begins at the end of the battle at Ichi-no-tani on Suma bay, Naozane, from the rival Genji clan, catches sight of an apparently high ranking warrior of the Heike alone on the shore. They have a short battle and Naozane takes down his opponent and removes his helmet. The soldier is a boy of about 17, similar to the age of his own son. At first Naozone wants to spare the life of the boy, but realizes that other warriors will soon be coming and will kill him regardless. So with tears in his eyes he follows through and cuts the boyís head off. He later tears a piece of Atsumoriís garment to wrap his dead, and finds a flute. The flute is a symbol of courtly elegance which was hidden under the boy's body armor. Later, he regrets and is disheartened by the calling that has lead him to commit such a brutal act. The incident had a great deal to do with Naozone's later decision to become a Buddhist monk.

In the Noh play "Atsumori" Zeami revisits the encounter a Suma Bay between Naozone, who is now a monk named Rensho, and the ghost of Atsumori, disguised as a grass cutter. In the first act Atsumori's ghost shows a love of music by playing the flute. The flute then opens the conversation between the monk and the ghost, that leads to a song recalling the names of famous players. The scene is back at the Bay of Suma. It is a highly poetic landscape with strong a aristocratic culture. This suggests an analogy of the two characters because both fled the capital for this remote shore due to adverse situations. The second act recalls the banquet Atsumori enjoyed with his family the night before his death. Atsumori's ghost reenacts the singing, flute playing, and dancing that took place.

The play's structure would fall under ghost drama but has been altered, and does not strictly follow Zeami's established style. This is because the relationship between the two was a tragedy for both Atsumori and Naozone, who was forced to kill the boy against his will. Also, as Atsumori needs to be saved from hell, Naozone is desperate to be delivered from his anguish.

Culture and Religion Information

Research done by: Walt Chesser (English 231.43)

Journey to Medieval Japan

My oral report is on the culture and religion of Medieval Japan, specifically, during the life of Zeami (Zay-ah-mee), 1363 through 1443, also known as the Muromachi period, where after many battles between the Northern and Southern Courts, they were finally united under one Emperor. (, Muromachi period, 1)

The Shogun Yoshimitsu was in power in the year 1400, a time of flourishing trade, and like Europe of the time, under a feudal system of government. (1)

The Noh drama - "the oldest form of Japanese drama still being performed" (The Longman Anthology of World Literature, Vol. B, 367) is a highly stylized form of play using masks, music and dancing to tell a tale - in this case "Atsumori, A Tale of Heike Play" (370) - a ghost drama where the restless spirit gains peace through the prayers of a Buddhist monk; in our play, the General turned monk Naozane, the one who chopped off Atsumori's head.

Noh theater was traditionally entertainment for only the lower classes, basically with religious overtones. Sort of like our Vaudeville meets TV Evangelism? Maybe not. Still, entertainment for the unwashed, uneducated masses, performed by society's outcasts. Think of musical theater today - I'm guessing it was the same crew.

Shogun Yoshimitsu elevated Zeami and the genre of Noh theater to the imperial courts, much to the chagrin of the established aristocracy. Yoshimitsu actually let Zeami and his actors - all male - dine with him at his table. Oh, my! (They came to party: an examination of the social status of the medieval noh theatre, 5)

What is most fascinating about this society is how young everybody is. I'm guessing that we now live three to four times longer on average than the people of Zeami's time. Atsumori was only about sixteen or seventeen, and a general! Very accomplished. Yet he seems resigned to be done with life at his last battle by the sea. "Just take my head" (Longman, 360) he says. A strong example of the Samurai culture of death, and a strong Buddhist belief in an afterlife.

A good time in history to be an actor, musician or merchant.

The Chorus in Zeami's play mention's a short life:

"we flowered one day;


birth in the human realm

quickly ends, like a spark from a flint." (374)

The Shinto religion, practiced alongside Buddhism, projects a life force on all creation. Rocks, people, even cute little bamboo flutes. Atsumori's flute seems to have a life of its own, lending it to Atsumori for only a short period of time, destined to be its own legend.

The picture I sent around is of a Shinto shrine, on a rock, by the sea. The rock has as much life force as you or I, very close to the modern theories of Physics that all matter and energy is made from vibrating strings, like music.

The setting in the handout, by the sea, gives us an idea what the day looked like when the gory scene of Atsumori's death played out.

I wonder if the little flute, named "Little Branch" (372) was saddened by the loss of its companion. I doubt it, but I can only guess at the consciousness of bamboo.

Where I come close to Shintoism, is in my relationship with my truck. I think it likes me, unlike an Audiģ that was once my companion.

The last line of the play is a fitting last line to close with, and for anyone who must endure any oral presentation, on either side of the lectern: "Pray for me, O pray for my release!" (376)

Works Cited

Choo, Lim Beng. They came to party: An examination of the social status of the medieval noh theatre. Singapore: Routledge, 2004.

Damrosch, David, ed. The Longman Anthology of World Literature.Vol. C. New York: Pearson Longman, 2004.

History - Muromachi period.

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