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arts and art forms of Japan
Noh theater

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

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 -- the classical Japanese performance form -- replete with Buddhist sensitivities --  which combines elements of dance, drama, music and poetry into one highly aesthetic stage art -- is the oldest surviving form of Japanese theater and began probably as early as the eleventh century. However, most of the repertory, the plays that are performed today, are works that were written in the fifteenth or early sixteenth century. The stories in the drama can be traced back in some cases to the 8th century, and even before that on the Asian mainland.

From: Illustrations of Noh at the Imperial Court
Noh:The Rolls of Silk
Often the plot of a Noh play recreates famous scenes from well-known works of Japanese literature such as The Tale of Genji [genji monogatari] or The Tale of the Heike [heike monogatari]. The typical Noh play is not a dramatic reenactment of an event but its retelling, portraying one all-encompassing emotion dominating the main character, the shite (she-tay).  Whether jealousy, rage, or sorrow, all music, gesture, dance, and recitation are used to build the emotion to its final climax at the close of the play.
Aside from the main character there are one or sometimes two secondary parts, the waki. Like the audience, the secondary character is there only to observe the tragedy enacted by the main character.
Usually a play opens with the priest or other secondary character's entrance. He describes the scene which he wants the audience to imagine. The scenes are all actual spots in Japan, usually in he provinces. The main character may then enter disguised as a local person. The local person reveals to the secondary character the significance of the site. He then exits. He returns dressed as his true self with a mask and embroidered robes. From the time of his return to the stage, the secondary character generally remains seated to one side.

Often the plays depict the return of a historical personage, in spirit--or "ghostly"--form, to the site of a significant event in his or her life. A warrior might return to the battle field, or young woman to the scene of a love affair. According to Buddhism of the fourteenth century, a person could not find spiritual release (attain salvation) even after death if he is still possessed by some traumatic experiences of the past like a strong emotion or desire. To exorcise this emotion, the warrior might appear in his armor and recreate the battle in a dance. The dance would reveal his humiliation at suffering defeat. So, this whole drama is kind of cathartic, the protagonist speaks about the past and thereby liberates himself or herself form it.

The portrayed aesthetics in Noh are: understatement, abstraction, refinement and suggestion.
These arose from the three major influences on 14th century Japanese life:
- the feudal code of ethics of the Samurai warriors;
- the elegant manners of court nobles;
- the asceticism of Zen Buddhism.
Despite this partly Buddhist basis, many of the stories in Noh restate the myths of the other popular religions at that time.

Noh plays are extremely intense and reflect the artful use of emptiness and silence. Every moment is choreographed and often symbolic. Not one thing on the stage which isn't necessary at that moment. If the actor has a sword and drops the sword, a stage assistant will remove the sword as an unsightly object. Everything must be absolutely simple, clean.
In order to express something so abstract as an emotion, words are often inadequate. As the play progresses, then, dance and poetry are used to express the tortured heart. Other elements which contribute to an intensification of the mood are the bare simplicity of the stage which allows no distraction from the main character, and the gorgeous costumes of the main character himself. The stylized movements also help to focus the energy on the emotion rather than on the individual personalities.
And, the music which suggests another world may be described as other-worldly music. It is provided by a single flute and then two or three different kinds of drums.
While noh may be compared with kutiyattam reflecting the oriental aesthetic principle that regards drama as a blend of poetry, music, dance and mime, the similarity to Greek theatre may also be pointed out. That is to say, there are masks, there's a chorus, and there are dancers.

The masks - perhaps the most striking feature of the noh plays - may have originally been intended to provide realism, to make the actor who is male look like a beautiful woman or an old man look like a young man, or a young man look like an old man. And in this sense they are more realistic.
But with time the masks became more schematized, more abstract, and stopped looking like particular people, or even looking like people we might see normally; they became embodiments of certain qualities, beauty or ugliness or whatever.
Masks are very important in the Noh and are worn only by the main character. The mask helps to raise the action out of the ordinary, to freeze it in time. For the Noh actor the mask of a particular character has almost a magic power. Before putting it on he will look at it until he feels the emotion absorbed within himself. When he puts on the mask, his individuality recedes and he is nothing but the emotion to be depicted.


Kan nozu (watching noh), Edo period, c.1607
Kobe City Museum
source: http://www.worldaa.com/

Although Noh can be traced back to as early as the eleventh century, it however developed into its present form during the 14th and 15th centuries under the leadership of the distinguished performer-playwrights Kannami Kiyotsugu (1333-1384) and his son Zeami Motokiyo[1363-1443). Zeami, in particular, wrote numerous plays which are still performed in today’s classical repertory of some 250 plays. He also wrote a number of once secret works which explain the aesthetic principles governing noh and give details on how the art should be composed, acted, directed, taught, and produced. Zeami's main rule of aesthetics was the [hana] or 'flower,' an abstraction based on the effect to be felt between actor and audience when a perfect balance of performance and reception has been achieved, a kind of mystic suspense.
flourished during Zeami’s time under the patronage of the military shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358-1408).
Later during the Edo period (1603-1868), noh became the official performance art of the military government. Feudal military lords throughout the country supported their own troupes and many studied and performed the art themselves.
With the societal reforms of the Meiji period (1868-1912), noh lost its governmental patronage and was left to fend for itself. Although it nearly died out, enough performers regrouped, found private sponsors, and began teaching the art to amateurs so that it slowly began to flourish again. Today, like many classical performance forms throughout the world, noh cannot be described as a popular art among the average Japanese. Yet its supporters are enthusiastic and its professional performers are highly trained and extremely busy performing and teaching throughout the country. There are today approximately 1,500 professional performers who make their living largely through performing and teaching noh.

There are five categories of noh plays. In order, these feature gods [kami][waki noh]or [kami noh], warriors [shura][Shuramono or bushi noh] , beautiful women [katsura], miscellaneous (notably mad-women or present-time) figures, and supernatural beings like demons [kiri]. During the Edo period, a full day’s program consisted of the ritual piece Okina-Sanbaso followed by one play from each category in the above order. One Kyogen play would be presented between each noh. Of the five categories, the women plays are the slowest in tempo but the most poetic, and of the highest level in expressing yugen, an aesthetic term suggesting quiet elegance and grace, and subtle and fleeting beauty.

The main character of a noh play is called the shite (pronounced sh’tay) who sometimes appears with one or more companion characters called tsure. In many plays, the shite appears in the first half as an ordinary person, departs, then appears in the second half in his true form as the ghost of famous person of long ago. The former is called the maejite and the latter, the nochijite. They are traditionally performed by the same actor. The secondary actor, the waki, is often a traveling priest whose questioning of the main character is important in developing the story line. He also often appears with companion waki-tsure. An interlude actor called ai or ai-kyogen also often appears as a local person who gives further background to the waki, and thus to the audience, in order to understand the situation of the shite.

A chorus called jiutai, usually consisting of eight persons, sits at the side of the stage, functioning to narrate the background, and the story and its mood. It also sometimes describes the character’s thoughts and emotions or even sings lines for the characters.
A chorus sits to the side of the stage. The chorus often echoes the words of the characters, but it may also speak for them. Thus in a dialogue between the main character and secondary characters, the chorus may say the lines of either of them. This is of course according to the script and not improvised. Nothing on the Noh stage is improvised. The use of the chorus to recite the actors' lines make it seem as though the lines belong to no one: The actors are there but the emotion is not under anyone's control. It floats between actors and chorus and is further picked up by a sudden drum beat or drawn out by the flute.

Instrumentalists known as hayashi sit at the back of the stage. They consist of a transverse flute (nohkan), an hourglass-shaped drum held at the shoulder (kotsuzumi), a slightly larger hourglass-shaped drum placed on the lap (okawa or otsuzumi), and a barrel-shaped drum placed on a small floor stand and played with two sticks (taiko). The rhythms and melody of these instruments follow highly prescribed systems.
One particularly unique feature is the use of drum calls (kakegoe), the shouts or cries of the drummers which serve as signals between the drummers as well as between the drummers and singers. These drum calls also add an important element to the sound texture of the performance, creating the mood and with the chant, establishing the tempo.
There are usually four musicians who sit to the rear of the stage. Three play Japanese drums and one plays a flute made from bamboo. The drums give a very hollow thud while the flute has an eerie whistling sound. This eerie whisper is what draws the first actor out onto the stage and creates the other-worldly feeling necessary to Noh.

A performance of noh is not a performance of realistic theatre. Rather, its movement is highly stylized and prescribed. While some gestures have specific meaning, others serve as an abstract aesthetic expression to convey the emotions of the main character. All of noh can be described as dance. Sometimes there is very little movement as dramatic tension is built mainly through narration. At other times there is strong, vigorous movement. Movement takes place sometimes to the singing of the chorus or sometimes to purely instrumental music. In general, deliberateness, brevity, suppression and abstraction are important features of noh movement.

Makeup is not used in noh. Rather, delicately carved masks are often used by the shite main character and/or the tsure attendant. These masks are considered objects of superb beauty as well as powerful means of expression. In general, any character being portrayed which is not a middle-aged man living in the present will wear a mask. Therefore all characters portraying women and old men wear masks as well as supernatural beings such as ghosts, deities, demons, and divine beasts. In general, masks either have a more or less neutral expression, or portray a very strong emotion. The former, in fact, allows the mask a variety of expressions with the play of light and shadow on it as the actor changes slightly the tilt of the mask. Even in roles in which an actor does not wear a mask, the sense of a masked face is evident. This is called hitamen, literally “direct mask.” For this, the actor does not use his face for realistic expression but rather for mask-like expression. The waki secondary character or accompanying wakizure never wear masks as they are meant to be middle-aged men living in the present-time of the play.
Masks are very important in the Noh and are worn only by the main character. The mask helps to raise the action out of the ordinary, to freeze it in time. For the Noh actor the mask of a particular character has almost a magic power. Before putting it on he will look at it until he feels the emotion absorbed within himself. When he puts on the mask, his individuality recedes and he is nothing but the emotion to be depicted.

[zo-onna] mask
17. century

used in 'Hagoromo'
Ishikawa Prefectural Museum of Art


Costumes in noh are elaborately made with gorgeously dyed silk and intricate embroidery. These costumes reveal the type of character being portrayed and follow prescribed conventions as to their use. Still, there is much variety. The detail of design, the color combinations, the richness of texture, and the strength of form give noh its visual impact. All characters, whether rich or poor, young or old, male or female, are beautifully costumed. The costuming process is complex. Rather than the actor putting on his own costume, two or three costumers are needed to sculpt the costume on the actor.

Costume for the main role [shite], Tennin (celestial being) of the Noh play "Hagoromo"
source: http://www.iz2.or.jp/english/ fukusyoku/busou/21.htm


STAGE [butai]
The main part of the stage used in noh is a curtain-less square with a bridgeway leading to it from backstage. At the end of the bridgeway there is a hanging curtain which swings up and back allowing the characters to enter and exit. Stages were traditionally outside and covered with a long sloping roof. From the late 19th century, they have been mainly moved indoors. These inside stages are open on two sides in a kind of semi-theater-in-the-round. There is no attempt at designing a realistic stage set. Rather, only symbolic stage properties are used. The pine tree painted on the back wall of the stage represents the tree through which noh was, by legend, passed down from heaven to mankind. In Japanese culture, the evergreen pine has come to be an important symbol of longevity and unchanging steadfastness.

shite:      main character, mostly wearing a mask
waki:       the secondary character
hayashi:  music
jiuta:       chorus

kouken:  stageassistants

In general, the use of space and time is not portrayed realistically. Rather, there is a freedom of portrayal which requires the audience members to use their imaginations. Characters take only a few steps and through their song or that of the chorus, the audience knows that they have traveled a great distance. Two characters may appear on the stage nearly side- by-side, but again the audience comes to understand that they are not yet in each other’s presence. While this may be confusing for the first time viewer, for many people who come to understand these and other conventions, noh creates a much more powerful theatrical expression than realistic theatre.

Order Of Performance
1) Orchestra enters
2) Chorus enters
3) Waki crosses bridge, traveling song; Waki goes to Waki pillar [waki-bashira]
4) Shite enters; song stating theme of play
5) Waki converses with Shite; asks Shite to tell tale
6) Shite tells tale; story dance
7) Kyogen or lower character recapitulates story
8) Shite returns in new costume, often with new identity; tempo increases; performance peaks in dance

Note: All the information about noh of  this website has been compiled from the internet with the best of intentions. It is not based on own assessment.  The following references may be considered the best ressources on the subject available on the web.
    Ressources (recommended links):
* Japan Arts Council: Noh and Kyogen.
   An Introduction to Noh and Kyogen
* Web-Japan.org: Web Japan Factsheet
    Noh and Kyogen
* Columbia University: Noh drama
    Asian Topics – an online resource for Asian history and culture
click on a picture to enlarge !

noh theatre "Hagoromo" - noh play text