Noh or Nogaku derived from the Sino-Japanese word for “skill” or “talent”—is a major form of classical Japanese musical drama that has been performed since the 14th century. Developed by Kan’ami and his son Zeami, it is the oldest major theatre art still regularly performed today. Traditionally, a Noh program includes five Noh plays with comedic kyogen plays in between; an abbreviated program of two Noh plays and one kyogen piece has become common in Noh presentations today. An okina play may be presented in the very beginning especially during New Years, holidays, and other special occasions.
Noh is often based on tales from traditional literature with a supernatural being transformed into human form as a hero narrating a story. Noh integrates masks, costumes and various props in a dance-based performance, requiring highly trained actors and musicians. Having a strong emphasis on tradition rather than innovation, Noh is extremely codified and regulated by the iemoto system.Noh is a classical tradition that is highly valued by many today. When used alone, Noh refers to the historical genre of theatre originated from sarugaku in the mid 14th century and continues to be performed today.
Noh and kyogen , originated in the 8th century when the sangaku was transmitted from China to Japan. At the time, the term sangaku referred to various types of performance featuring acrobats, song and dance as well as comic sketches. Its subsequent adaption to Japanese society led to its assimilation of other traditional art forms. Noh and kyogen “originated in the 8th century when the sangaku was transmitted from China to Japan. At the time, the term sangaku referred to various types of performance featuring acrobats, song and dance as well as comic sketches.Read More
Studies on genealogy of the Noh actors in 14th century indicate they were members of families specialized in performing arts; they had performed various traditional performance arts for many generations. Sociological research by Yukio Hattori reveals that the Konparu School, arguably the oldest school of Noh, is a descendant of Mimashi, the performer who introduced gigaku, now-extinct masked drama-dance performance, into Japan from Kudara Kingdom in 612.
Kan’ami Kiyotsugu and his son Zeami Motokiyo brought Noh to what is essentially its present-day form during the Muromachi period (1336 to 1573). Kan’ami was a renowned actor with great versatility fulfilling roles from graceful women and 12-year-old boys to strong adult males. When Kan’ami first presented his work to 17-year-old Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, Zeami was a child actor in his play, around age 12. Yoshimitsu fell in love with Zeami and his position of favor at court caused Noh to be performed frequently for Yoshimitsu thereafter.
During the Tokugawa era Noh continued to be aristocratic art form supported by the shogun, the feudal lords (daimyo), as well as wealthy and sophisticated commoners. While kabuki and joruri popular to the middle class focused on new and experimental entertainment, Noh strived to preserve its established high standards and historic authenticity and remained mostly unchanged throughout the era.
The fall of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1868 and the formation of a new modernized government resulted in the end of financial support by the government, and the entire field of Noh experienced major financial crisis. Shortly after the Meiji Restoration both the number of Noh performers and Noh stages greatly diminished. The support from the imperial government was eventually regained partly due to Noh’s appeal to foreign diplomats. The companies that remained active throughout the Meiji era also significantly broadened Noh’s reach by catering to the general public, performing at theatres in major cities such as Tokyo and Osaka.
Training and Roles:Read
Actors begin their training as young children, traditionally at the age of three. Zeami isolated nine levels or types of Noh acting from lower degrees which put emphasis on movement and violence to higher degrees which represent the opening of a flower and spiritual prowess. Each school has its own iemoto family that carries the name of the school and is considered the most important. The iemoto holds the power to create new plays or modify lyrics and performance modes. The Nohgaku Performers’ Association (Nōgaku Kyōkai), to which all professionals are registered, strictly protects the traditions passed down from their ancestors. However, several secret documents of the Kanze school written by Zeami, as well as materials by Konparu Zenchiku, have been diffused throughout the community of scholars of Japanese theatre.
There are four major categories of Noh performers: shite, waki, kyōgen, and hayashi. Shite is the main protagonist, or the leading role in plays. In plays where the shite appears first as a human and then as a ghost, the first role is known as the mae-shite and the later as the nochi-shite. Shitetsure, The shite’s companion. Sometimes shitetsure is abbreviated to tsure, although this term refers to both the shitetsure and the wakitsure. Koken are stage hands, usually one to three people. Jiutai is the chorus, usually comprising six to eight people.
Waki performs the role that is the counterpart or foil of the shite. Wakitsure or Waki–tsure is the companion of the waki. Kyogen perform the aikyogen, which are interludes during plays. Kyogen actors also perform in separate plays between individual Noh plays. Hayashi or hayashi-kataare the instrumentalists who play the four instruments used in Noh theatre: the transverse flute, hip drum or okawa, the shoulder-drum, and the stick-drum. The flute used for noh is specifically called nokan or nohkan.
Elements Of Noh:
Noh masks are carved from blocks of Japanese cypress, and painted with natural pigments on a neutral base of glue and crunched seashell. There are approximately 450 different masks mostly based on sixty types, all of which have distinctive names. Some masks are representative and frequently used in many different plays, while some are very specific and may only be used in one or two plays. Noh masks signify the characters’ gender, age, and social ranking, and by wearing masks the actors may portray youngsters, old men, female, or nonhuman characters. Only the shite, the main actor, wears a mask in most plays, even though the tsure may also wear a mask in some plays to represent female characters. Even though the mask covers an actor’s facial expressions, the use of the mask in Noh is not an abandonment of facial expressions altogether. Rather, its intent is to stylize and codify the facial expressions through the use of the mask and to stimulate the imagination of the audience.
The traditional Noh stage has complete openness that provides a shared experience between the performers and the audience throughout the performance. Without any proscenium or curtains to obstruct the view, the audience sees each actor even during the moments before they enter (and after they exit) the central “stage”. The theatre itself is considered symbolic and treated with reverence both by the performers and the audience. One of the most recognizable characteristic of Noh stage is its independent roof that hangs over the stage even in indoor theatres. Supported by four columns, the roof symbolizes the sanctity of the stage, with its architectural design derived from the worship pavilion or sacred dance pavilion of Shinto shrines. The roof also unifies the theatre space and defines the stage as an architectural entity.
Noh actors wear silk costumes called shozoku (robes) along with wigs, hats, and props such as the fan. With striking colors, elaborate texture, and intricate weave and embroidery, Noh robes are truly works of art in their own right. Costumes for the shite in particular are extravagant, shimmering silk brocades, but are progressively less sumptuous for the tsure, the wakizure, and the aikyogen. For centuries, in accordance with the vision of Zeami, Noh costumes emulated the clothing that the characters would genuinely wear, such as the formal robes for a courtier and the street clothing for a peasant or commoner. But in the late sixteenth century, the costumes became stylized with certain symbolic and stylistic conventions. During the Edo (Tokugawa) period, the elaborate robes given to actors by noblemen and samurai in the Muromachi period were developed as costumes.
- Music And Chants:
Noh theatre is accompanied by a chorus and a hayashi ensemble. Noh is a chanted drama, and a few commentators have dubbed it “Japanese opera”. However, the singing in Noh involves a limited tonal range, with lengthy, repetitive passages in a narrow dynamic range. Clearly, melody is not at the center of Noh singing. Still, texts are poetic, relying heavily on the Japanese seven-five rhythm common to nearly all forms of Japanese poetry, with an economy of expression, and an abundance of allusion. The singing parts of Noh are called “Utai” and the speaking parts “Kataru”. The music has many blank spaces (ma) in between the actual sounds, and these negative blank spaces are in fact considered the heart of the music.
- Ao No Uei(Lady Of Uei):
In the backstory, Prince Genji, who was married to his wife Lady Aoi at a young age, has taken a mistress, Lady Rokujo. Lady Rokujo had been married to the crown prince, and had been next in line to become empress. The death of her husband robbed her of the chance to become empress and left her powerless. Following an episode in which she is humiliated in public by Lady Aoi, Rokujo is enraged to discover that Aoi is pregnant. Genji begins ignoring Rokujo, and in her jealousy her living spirit leaves her body and possesses Lady Aoi, resulting in Aoi’s death.
- Aya No Tsuzumi:
The gardener at the Palace of Chikuzen has fallen in love with the Imperial Consort. She sends a message to the gardener that she will meet him at the pond if he beats the drum which she has placed in a tree in the garden. He tries but the drum has been made with twill (aya) and so cannot sound. Realising that he has been made a fool of, the gardener drowns himself in the pond and returns as an evil ghost who torments the princess.
The temple Dōjō-ji, in Kii Province, has had no bell for many years. But today is an auspicious day, and the Abbot of Dōjōji has arranged for a new bell to be raised into the belfry. With a great deal of effort, the temple servants succeed into hoisting it into position.
For reasons the Abbot will not explain, the dedication service requires the absence of all women from the temple grounds. But a female dancer approaches the gate and, by giving an impromptu performance, persuades the servant to admit her.
Continuing to dance before the hypnotized onlookers, she slowly approaches the bell, then starts to strike it viciously.
She stands under the bell, and jumps; the bell simultaneously falls to the ground with a tremendous crash.
The servants rouse themselves as though from a trance, and see that the bell is on the ground. Only with difficulty do they remember what happened. They go to tell the Abbot, who comes in great haste. He scolds the servants, and tells them the story of what happened to the previous bell. Many years before, a priest from the northern provinces would make an annual trip to the shrine of Kumano, stopping at the house of a steward each time. He would bring gifts for the steward’s daughter, Kiyohime. She had a crush on the priest, and the steward once told her, as a joke, that when she grew up she would be his wife.
Not realising that it was a joke, one year she finally confronted the priest and demanded his hand in marriage. When he saw that she would not take no for an answer, he snuck out of the steward’s house, crossed a swollen river to Dojoji and asked them to hide him, which they did — under the bell. The girl ran after him, but could not cross the river. In her towering rage she transformed into a giant serpent and swam to the temple. She coiled herself around the bell, which turned white-hot and burnt him to death inside.
On hearing this, the servants resolve to perform an exorcism of her malevolent spirit. They pray to the five myoo, or Guardian Kings of East, South, West, North and Centre. Then they chant part of the Vow of Fudo. With great difficulty they lift the bell, and the demon jumps out from beneath it. The priests pronounce invocations to three of the five Dragon Kings. Using prayer and brandishing their rosaries they succeed in driving the monstrous serpent away. She leaps into the River Hitaka and vanishes beneath the waves.
A fisherman is walking with his companions at night when he finds the Hagoromo, the magical feather-mantle of a tennin (an aerial spirit or celestial dancer) hanging on a bough. The tennin sees him taking it and demands its return—she cannot return to Heaven without it. The fisherman argues with her, and finally promises to return it, if she will show him her dance or part of it. She accepts his offer. The Chorus explains the dance as symbolic of the daily changes of the moon. The words about “three, five, and fifteen” refer to the number of nights in the moon’s changes. In the finale, the tennin disappears like a mountain slowly hidden in mist.