Noh is the oldest existing form of theater, and though it can seem very
inscrutable and - let's admit it - boring, it has enjoyed something of a
revival recently in Japan. The main reason has been the growing popularity
of a new young generation of stars. Most visible among them have been
often refered to as the Prince of Noh, his sisters Junko and Miyake Tokuro,
and Nomura Mansai. Izumi Junko was the first female Noh performer ever and obviously
attracted a lot of attention. Nomura played the lead in a popular period movie
Onmyouji, set in the Heian Era.
Noh grew, during the 14th century, out of combination of Chinese performing arts, known
as sarugaku, and traditional Japanese dance called dengaku.
Acting troupes were under the patronage of shrines and temples
and their performances were as much 'sermons' as entertainment.
Noh's present form dates from around the end of the 14th century
when the main playwright/actors were Kannami and his son
Zeami. Having performed for the Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu
(1358~1408), they received his sponsorship and reached a higher
social status than actors had ever achieved. Zeami wrote many
plays which are still performed today, including the classics
Takasago and The Well Curb (Izutsu) and his ideas
on zen and theater form the very basis
of noh. In a sense, noh represents the austere Buddhist way of
life adopted by the aristocracy, while kabuki
represents the more earthy, animistic Shinto philosophy.
During the century of civil war (1467~1568) the shogunate had
little time for cultural distractions but the rest of the populace
embraced them. Noh, together with other art forms, the tea ceremony
and Buddhism, spread throughout all levels of society. When peace returned,
so did the patronage of the Shogun, this time with renewed enthusiasm.
Hideyoshi and later Ieyasu celebrated their coming
to power with noh performances.
In an effort to keep noh as the exclusive property of the aristocracy,
commoners were forbidden to learn the music and dance of noh.
But toward the end of the Edo Period
(1600~1868), as the military class began to lose their grip on
power, noh and kabuki became increasingly popular among the people.
Government subsidy stopped with the fall of the shogunate in 1867
and members of the nobility assumed the role of sponsor. Although
it suffered as a result of the reforms carried out during the
Meiji Period (1868~1912),
it maintained enough support and private sponsorship
to survive and even flourish.
Most performances are indoor but the stage (butai) retains
its original, outdoor design complete with pebbles and
small pine trees. In the scene from the play Takasago on the left,
the shi-te is the principal actor (center stage), supported by a companion,
the tsure (stage left) and a secondary actor, the waki (far right).
The performance is accompanied by three or four traditional musical
instruments, such as the tsuzumi drum and shamisen, and a chorus of six or
eight people. Each performer has his prescribed place on the stage.
The progress of the play can be determined by the positions of
the two main actors.
The character of the main actor is created with a combination
of masks and elaborate costumes. He is the last to arrive on the
stage, appearing from the darkness and entering along the
hashigakari, or bridge behind the main stage. He wears at least five layers
of clothing, creating a larger than life presence. Often, he will
change his mask mid-performance to reveal his true self. Scenery
is practically non-existant but props play an important role.
Chukei (folding fans) in particular are used to represent objects or
to express actions. The performance is a combination of song,
dialogue, music and dance. Both classical prose and poetry are
used and are beyond the comprehension of most Japanese. But, as
in kabuki, the story is already familiar to the audience and the
it's the atmosphere and underlying aesthetic that is important.
During the interval, and also between individual noh plays, there
is a half-hour kyogen performance. These performances
vary - some serve to explain
in simple terms the story of the noh play, others simply offer
some comic relief. Kyogen is actually an elaborate art form in
itself but is most often considered a part of noh.
There are five types of noh plays and traditional programs include
one of each, in order. They feature the following characters:
gods, warriors, beautiful women, various figures (often modern
figures or crazy women!) and finally demons. The most popular
play in the noh repetoire is Lady Aoi (Aoi no Ue), which
is based on events from the famous 11th-century
novel Tale of Genji.
As with kabuki, noh may be hard to handle in its full format.
The performances are very long, although they are broken up by
the occasional kyogen sketches. The word noh actually means ability
or skill and you'll need plenty of it to get to grips with a full
performance! If you're lucky enough to catch a (relatively short)
noh performance held outdoors somewhere in the country on a balmy
summer's night with flaming torches for lighting, it's actually
quite an experience. The eerie masks really come into their own
and almost seem to come alive. And believe me, children will not
thank you for making them spend any time whatsoever in the company
of one of those 'hannya', or female demon, masks (left). They
do make great souvenirs, though.