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arts and art forms of Japan
Noh theatre

The Japan-India Traditional Performing Arts Exchange Project 2004
Noh and Kutiyattam – “Treasures of World Cultural Heritage"

The first meeting of artists in Kerala

The first ever performance of noh in Kerala

The fourth performance of kamigata-mai

Sponsored by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, The Japan Foundation and the Government of the State of Kerala.
Supported by the Embassy of India in Japan and the Indo-Japanese Association

December 26, 2004 – January 4, 2005     [click for the program]

Noh and Kutiyattam are both the still living treasures of their countries respectively and they are both recognised by the UNESCO as masterpieces of the oral and untangible heritage of humanity.

Reflecting the oriental aesthetic principle that regards drama as a blend of poetry, music, dance and mime, they share a sacred similarity as both theatrical forms have been much more than mere entertainment, being inextricably connected with worship and religious ritual. To translate the concept of spirituality in theatre and to preserve them through vast stretches of time, Noh and Kutiyattam insisted on strict adherence to tradition, and deemed the theatrical activity itself as sacred. The basic plots of Noh and Kutiyattam are derived from the myths and classical legends belonging to their respective regions, with both forms extensively employing the use of costumes and masks in their rendition.

At the same time both art forms reflect as well a distinct difference of features and acting methods, because they are firmly rooted in heir own cultures.

Noh, kabuki and bunraku may be considered the three great traditional national art forms of Japan.

Kabuki is a folk theatre -- a song and dance drama born during the Edo period (1615-1868) as an art form of the masses, bunraku is a puppet theatre developed in the Edo period and like kabuki the popular art for the common people and noh is a classical Japanese mask artform -- combining elements of dance, drama, music and poetry into one highly aesthetic stage art with its origins reaching back to the medieval. Like kutiyattam (koodiyattom), the more than thousand years old sanskrit theatre of Kerala, being the oldest surviving form of Indian theatre, noh is the oldest surviving form of Japanese theatre.

noh is a classical Japanese theatre form that emphasizes the unity of word, dance, music and mystical experience. It is essentially a dance-drama in which the script of the play serves to create a setting for choreographic movement.
It is not primarily concerned with dramatic action; rather, it seeks to express a situation in lyrical form. All Noh plays reach their fulfillment in a stylized form of dance; the lines which precede the climactic dance serve primarily to establish the circumstances which motivate it. A chorus sings the actor's line while he is dancing and narrates much of the story.

The object of a noh performance thus is to capture the "beauty of life" including all existential moments (essence of a situation or emotion) that are also contained by ordinary life. The Japanese term for this concept of beauty is [yugen]. The word derives from the sign [yu], meaning deep, dark, clouded, barely visible and [gen], a term originally describing the deep, dark, calm colour of the universe, with reference to the taoistic conception of truth. Altogether it describes unobtrusive, solemn beauty with a hint of wistfulness - a beauty which is partly hidden, yet ever present.

Every episode is drawn out, often to great length. The high points take the form of extremely stylized static gestures or bodily attitudes held for some time.
Some of the gestures carry a particular meaning, others are just abstract. During a performance, every movement of hands and feet, every intonation must follow set rules. The orchestra furnishes the musical setting and establishes the time of every gesture. noh is one of the world's most carefully controlled theatrical experiences. The over-all effect is that of an elaborate ceremony or ritual.

The famous Umewaka Kennokai troupe with Norinaga Umewaka, the eldest son of the current head of the troupe, Muzaburo Umewaka as the main actor, will stage "Hagoromo" [The Feather Robe], the most popular of all Noh plays and also the most frequently performed, both in Japan and abroad, as it is considered an unparalleled example of what man considers as pure and beautiful.

While noh, kabuki and bunraku are performed by males, kamigata-mai is a female solo performance instead, born and developed in the 16th century in the area of Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe and origins in the dances popular with the court ladies ("Maiko" or "Geisha").

Keiin YOSHIMURA is a recipient of many awards and leading performer of kamigatamai. She uses dance to express the whole range of innermost feelings, translates them into slow, earth bound movements, accentuating them and adding more expression by using small objects like a folding fan - which can suggest the rising moon, falling rain, rippling water, and blowing wind, as well as a variety of emotional responses - or parasol or the kimono sleeve which itself symbolizes the beauty of the dance. Keiin's performance creates to the lingering sound of the shamisen an intimate atmosphere of poetic beauty.

YUKI ("snow") and YASHIMA ("Yashima") are both popular pieces. But while in YASHIMA the dancer tries to capture the essence of the ancient battle that took place at Yashima, the tranquil mind of a nun and her sad mind before becoming one is expressed through dance and music in YUKI.

The buttons below will link to further reference material.

noh theatre "Hagoromo" - noh play text