Noh (能 Nō?), or Nogaku (能楽 Nōgaku?)—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. It is the oldest major theatre art still regularly performed today. Traditionally, a Noh "performance day" lasts all day and consists of five Noh plays interspersed with shorter, humorous kyōgen pieces. However, present-day Noh performances often consist of two Noh plays with one Kyōgen play in between.
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. Emotions are primarily conveyed by stylized conventional gestures while the iconic masks represent the roles such as ghosts, women, children, and old people. Written in ancient Japanese language, the text "vividly describes the ordinary people of the twelfth to sixteenth centuries". Having a strong emphasis on tradition rather than innovation, Noh is extremely codified and regulated by the iemoto system.
- 1 Etymology
- 2 History
- 3 Jo, Ha, Kyū
- 4 Performers and roles
- 5 Performance elements
- 6 Plays
- 7 Audience etiquette
- 8 Influence in the West
- 9 Aesthetic terminology
- 10 See also
- 11 References
- 12 Further reading
- 13 External links
The word Noh means skill, craft, or the talent particularly in the field of performing arts in this context. The word Noh may be used alone or with Gaku to form the word Nôgaku. 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.
Although sometimes used interchangeably, the term Nôgaku encompasses Noh as well as Kyôgen. Kyôgen is performed in between Noh plays in the same space. Compared to Noh, "Kyôgen relies less on the use of masks and is derived from the humorous plays of the Sangaku, as reflected in its comic dialogue." The Japanese word "Noh" originally indicated various forms of performing arts such as Dengaku and Sarugaku. However, as the time passed on, such various forms have diminished except for Sarugaku, thus Noh came to indicate Noh of Sarugaku. Since the Meiji era, the art form has also been commonly called Nôgaku encompassing both Noh and Kyôgen.
Noh and Kyōgen "originated in the eighth 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." Together with the closely related Kyōgen farce, Noh evolved from various popular, folk, and aristocratic performing art forms, including Dengaku, Sarugaku, Shirabyoshi, and Gagaku.
Studies on genealogy of the Noh actors in 14th century indicate they were members of families specialized in performing arts, performing sarugaku, dengaku, and sangaku for many generations prior. Sociological research by Yukio Hattori reveals that the Komparu School, arguably the oldest school of Noh, is a descendant of Mimashi, the performer who introduced gigaku into Japan in 612.
Another theory by Shinhachiro Matsumoto suggests Noh originated from outcastes struggling to claim higher social status by catering to those in power, namely the new ruling samurai class of the time. The transferral of the shogunate from Kamakura to Kyoto at the beginning of Muromachi period contributed significantly to Noh becoming a courtly art form. Indeed, with strong support and patronage from shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, Zeami was able to establish Noh as the most prominent theatre art form of the time.
Kan'ami and Zeami
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 woman to 12-year old boy to a strong adult male. 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 resulted in Noh frequently performed for Yoshimitsu thereafter.
The Tokugawa era
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. To capture the essence of performances given by great masters, every detail in movements and positions was reproduced by others, generally resulting in a slow, ceremonial tempo.
Modern Noh after Meiji 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 theaters in major cities such as Tokyo and Osaka.
In 1957 the Japanese Government designated Nôgaku as an Important Intangible Cultural Property, which affords a degree of legal protection to the tradition as well as its most accomplished practitioners. The National Noh Theatre founded by the government in 1983 stages regular performances and organizes courses to train actors in the leading roles of the Nôgaku. Noh was inscribed in 2008 on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO as Nôgaku theatre.
Jo, Ha, Kyū
Originated as the three movements of courtly gagaku, the concept of Jo-ha-kyū dictates virtually every element of Noh including the structure of plays, songs and dances within plays, and even individual steps, movements, and sounds actors and musicians make. The entire traditional Noh program of five plays also manifests this concept, with the first play being the jo, the second, third, and fourth plays the ha (with the second play being referred to as the jo of the ha, the third as the ha of the ha, and the fourth as the kyū of the ha), and finally the fifth play the kyū. In general, the jo component is slow and evocative, the ha component details transgression or the disordering of the natural way and the natural world, and the kyū resolves the element with haste or suddenness (note, however, that this only means kyū is fast in comparison with what came before it, and those unfamiliar with the concepts of Noh may not even realize the acceleration occurred).
Performers and roles
Actors begin their training as young children, traditionally at the age of three. Historically the performers had been exclusively male, but women (daughters of established Noh actors) have begun to perform professionally since 1940s. In 2009, there were about 1200 male and 200 female professional Noh performers.
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.
In 2012, there were five extant schools of Noh acting called Kanze (観世), Hōshō (宝生), Komparu (金春), Kongō (金剛), and Kita (喜多) schools. 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 (see iemoto). However, several secret documents of the Kanze school written by Zeami, as well as materials by Komparu Zenchiku, have been diffused throughout the community of scholars of Japanese theater.
Actors normally follow a strict progression through the course of their lives from roles considered the most basic to those considered the most complex or difficult; the role of Yoshitsune in Funa Benkei is one of the most prominent roles a child actor performs in Noh. Other 'graduation pieces' include Shakkyō, Dōjōji and Hachi no Ki. In his maturity, an actor will be confronted with pieces where the main character is an elderly person, especially the 'Komachi' pieces, portraying the famous Heian period poetess Ono no Komachi, such as Kayoi Komachi or Sekidera Komachi.
There are four major categories of Noh performers: shite, waki, kyōgen, and hayashi.
- Shite (仕手, シテ). In plays where the shite appears first as a human and then as a ghost, the first role is known as the maeshite and the later as the nochishite.
- Shitetsure (仕手連れ, シテヅレ). The shite's companion. Sometimes shitetsure is abbreviated to tsure (連れ, ツレ), although this term refers to both the shitetsure and the wakitsure.
- Kōken (後見) are stage hands, usually one to three people.
- Jiutai (地謡) is the chorus, usually comprising six to eight people.
- Waki (脇, ワキ) performs the role that is the counterpart or foil of the shite.
- Wakitsure (脇連れ, ワキヅレ) or Waki-tsure is the companion of the waki.
- Kyōgen (狂言) perform the aikyōgen (間狂言) interludes during plays. Kyōgen actors also perform in separate plays between individual noh plays.
- Hayashi (囃子) or hayashi-kata (囃子方) are the instrumentalists who play the four instruments used in Noh theater: the transverse flute (笛 fue?), hip drum (大鼓 ōtsuzumi?) or ōkawa (大皮?), the shoulder-drum (小鼓 kotsuzumi?), and the stick-drum (太鼓 taiko ?). The flute used for noh is specifically called nōkan or nohkan (能管?).
A typical Noh play always involves the chorus, the orchestra, and at least one shite and one waki actor.
Noh performance combines a variety of elements into a stylistic whole, with each particular element the product of generations of refinement according to the central Buddhist, Shinto, and minimalist aspects of Noh's aesthetic principles.
The traditional Noh stage consists of a pavilion whose architectural style is derived from that of the traditional kagura stage of Shinto shrines, and is normally composed almost entirely of hinoki (Japanese cypress) wood. The four pillars are named for their orientation to the prominent actions during the course of the play: the waki-bashira in the front, right corner near the waki's standing point and sitting point; the shite-bashira in the rear, left corner, next to which the shite normally performs; the fue-bashira in the rear, right corner, closest to the flute player; and the metsuke-bashira, or "sighting-pillar", so called because shite use it in order to navigate the stage while their vision is restricted by the mask.
The floor is polished to enable the actors to move in a gliding fashion, and beneath this floor are buried giant pots or bowl-shaped concrete structures to enhance the resonant properties of the wood floors when the actors stomp heavily on the floor (compare nightingale floor). As a result, the stage is elevated approximately three feet above the ground level of the audience.
The only ornamentation on the stage is the kagami-ita, a painting of a pine tree at the back of the stage. The two most common beliefs are that it represents either a famous pine tree of significance in Shinto at the Kasuga Shrine in Nara, or that it is a token of Noh's artistic predecessors which were often performed to a natural backdrop.
All stages which are solely dedicated to Noh performances also have a hook or loop in the ceiling, which exists only to lift and drop the bell for the play Dōjōji. When that play is being performed in another location, the loop or hook will be added as a temporary fixture.
The garb worn by actors is typically adorned quite richly and steeped in symbolic meaning for the type of role (e.g. thunder gods will have hexagons on their clothes while serpents have triangles to convey scales). Costumes for the shite in particular are extravagant, shimmering silk brocades, but are progressively less sumptuous for the tsure, the wakizure, and the aikyōgen.
For centuries, in accordance with the vision of Zeami, Noh costumes emulated the clothing that the characters would genuinely wear, whether that be the formal robes of a courtier or the street clothing of a peasant or commoner. It was not until the late sixteenth century that stylized Noh costumes following certain symbolic and stylistic conventions became the norm.
The musicians and chorus typically wear formal montsuki kimono (black and adorned with five family crests) accompanied by either hakama (a skirt-like garment) or kami-shimo, a combination of hakama and a waist-coat with exaggerated shoulders (see illustrations). Finally, the stage attendants are garbed in virtually unadorned black garments, much in the same way as stagehands in contemporary Western theater.
Noh masks (能面 nō-men or 面 omote) all have names. They are carved from blocks of Japanese cypress (檜 "hinoki"), and painted with natural pigments on a neutral base of glue and crunched seashell.
Usually only the shite, the main actor, wears a mask. However, in some cases, the tsure may also wear a mask, particularly in the case of female roles. Noh masks portray female or nonhuman (divine, demonic, or animal) characters. There are also Noh masks to represent youngsters or old men. On the other hand, a Noh actor who wears no mask plays a role of an adult man in his twenties, thirties, or forties. The side player, the waki, wears no mask either.
Several types of masks, in particular those for female roles, are designed so that slight adjustments in the position of the head can express a number of emotions such as fear or sadness due to the variance in lighting and the angle shown towards the audience. With some of the more extravagant masks for deities and monsters, however, it is not always possible to convey emotion. Usually, however, these characters are not frequently called to change emotional expression during the course of the scene, or show emotion through larger body language.
The rarest and most valuable Noh masks are not held in museums even in Japan, but rather in the private collections of the various "heads" of Noh schools; these treasures are usually only shown to a select few and only taken out for performance on the rarest occasions.
The most commonly used prop in Noh is the fan, as it is carried by all performers regardless of role. Chorus singers and musicians may carry their fan in hand when entering the stage, or carry it tucked into the obi. In either case, the fan is usually placed at the performer's side when he or she takes position, and is often not taken up again until leaving the stage.
Several plays have characters who wield mallets, swords, and other implements. Nevertheless, during dance sequences, the fan is typically used to represent any and all hand-held props, including one such as a sword which the actor may have tucked in his sash or ready at hand nearby.
When hand props other than fans are used, they are usually introduced or retrieved by stage attendants who fulfill a similar role to stage crew in contemporary theater. Like their Western counterparts, stage attendants for Noh traditionally dress in black, but unlike in Western theater they may appear on stage during a scene, or may remain on stage during an entire performance, in both cases in plain view of the audience.
Stage properties in Noh including the boats, wells, altars, and the aforementioned bell from Dōjōji, are typically carried onto the stage before the beginning of the act in which they are needed. These props normally are only outlines to suggest actual objects, although the great bell, a perennial exception to most Noh rules for props, is designed to conceal the actor and to allow a costume change during the aikyogen interlude.
Chant and music
Noh theatre is accompanied by a chorus and a hayashi ensemble (Noh-bayashi 能囃子). 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 chant is not always performed "in character"; that is, sometimes the actor will speak lines or describe events from the perspective of another character or even a disinterested narrator. Far from breaking the rhythm of the performance, this is actually in keeping with the other-worldly feel of many Noh plays, especially those characterized as mugen.
Noh hayashi ensemble consists of four musicians, also known as the "hayashi-kata". There are three drummers, which play the shime-daiko, ōtsuzumi (hip drum), and kotsuzumi (shoulder drum) respectively, and a shinobue flautist.
The current repertoire consist of approximately 240 plays performed by the five existing Noh schools, selected from roughly 2000 texts. The current repertoire is heavily influenced by the taste of aristocratic class in Tokugawa period and does not necessarily reflect popularity among the commoners.  There are several different criteria to classify Noh plays.
All Noh plays can be classified into three broad categories.
- Genzai Noh (現在能) features human characters and events unfold according to a linear timeline within the play.
- Mugen Noh (夢幻能) involves supernatural worlds, featuring gods, spirits, ghosts, or phantasms in the "shite" role. Time is often depicted as passing in a non-linear fashion, and action may switch between two or more timeframes from moment to moment, including flashbacks.
- Ryokake Noh (両掛能), though somewhat uncommon, is a hybrid of the above with the first act being Genzai Noh and the second act Mugen Noh.
While Genzai Noh utilizes internal and external conflicts to drive storylines and bring out emotions, Mugen Noh focuses on utilizing flashbacks of the past and the deceased to invoke emotions.
Additionally, Noh plays may be categorized by the style of the plays.
- Geki Noh (劇能) is a drama piece based around the advancement of plot and the narration of action.
- Furyū Noh (風流能) is little more than a dance piece characterized by elaborate stage action, often involving acrobatics, stage properties, and multiple characters.
Noh plays are divided by their themes into the following five categories. This classification is considered the most practical, and is still used today in formal programming choices today. Traditionally, a formal 5-play program is composed of a selection from each of the groups.
- Kami mono (神物, god plays) or waki Noh (脇能) typically feature the shite in the role of a deity to tell the mythic story of a shrine or praise a particular god. Many of them structured in two acts, the deity takes a human form in disguise in the first act and reveals the real self in the second act. (e.g. Takasago, Chikubushima)
- Shura mono (修羅物, warrior plays) or ashura Noh (阿修羅能) takes its name from the Buddhist underworld. The protagonist appearing as a ghost of a famous samurai pleads to a monk for salvation and the drama culminates in a glorious re-enactment of the scene of his death in a full war costume. (e.g. Tamura, Atsumori)
- Katsura mono (鬘物, wig plays) or onna mono (女物, woman plays) depict the shite in a female role and feature some of the most refined songs and dances in all of Noh, reflecting the smooth and flowing movements representing female characters. (e.g. Basho, Matsukaze)
- There are about 94 "miscellaneous" plays traditionally performed in the fourth place in a five-play program. These plays include subcategories kyōran mono(狂乱物, madness plays), onryō mono (怨霊物, vengeful ghost plays), genzai mono (現在物, present plays), as well as others. (e.g. Aya no tsuzumi, Kinuta)
- Kiri Noh (切り能, final plays) or oni mono (鬼物, demon plays) usually feature the shite in the role of monsters, goblins, or demons, and are often selected for their bright colors and fast-paced, tense finale movements. 
The Tale of the Heike, a medieval tale of the rise and fall of the Taira clan, originally sung by blind monks who accompanied themselves on the biwa, is an important source of material for Noh (and later dramatic forms), particularly warrior plays. Another major source is The Tale of Genji, an eleventh-century work of profound importance to the later development of Japanese culture. Authors also drew on Nara and Heian period Japanese classics, and Chinese sources.
Some famous plays
- For a more comprehensive list, see List of Noh plays (A–M) N–Z.
- Plays with individual articles are listed here.
The following categorization is that of the Kanze school.
|Aoi no Ue||葵上||Lady Aoi||4 (misc.)|
|Aya no Tsuzumi||綾鼓||The Damask Drum||4 (misc.)|
|Hagoromo||羽衣||The Feather Mantle||3 (woman)|
|Izutsu||井筒||The Well Cradle||3 (woman)|
|Kanawa||鉄輪||The Iron Ring/Crown||4 (misc.)|
|Kumasaka||熊坂||Kumasaka/The Robber||5 (demon)|
|Matsukaze||松風||The Wind in the Pines||3 (woman)|
|Nonomiya||野宮||The Shrine in the Fields||3 (woman)|
|Sekidera Komachi||関寺小町||Komachi at Sekidera||3 (woman)|
|Shakkyō||石橋||Stone Bridge||5 (demon)|
|Shōjō||猩々||The Tippling Elf||5 (demon)|
|Sotoba Komachi||卒都婆小町||Komachi at the Gravepost||3 (woman)|
|Takasago||高砂||At Takasago||1 (deity)|
Audience etiquette is generally similar to formal western theater—the audience quietly watches. Surtitles are not used, but some audience members follow along in the libretto. At the end of the play, the actors file out slowly (most important first, with gaps between actors), and while they are on the bridge (hashigakari), the audience claps restrainedly. Between actors, clapping ceases, then begins again as the next actor leaves. Unlike in western theater, there is no bowing, nor do the actors return to the stage after having left. A play may end with the shite character leaving the stage as part of the story (as in Kokaji, for instance)—rather than the play ending with all characters on stage—in which case one claps as the character exits.
During the interval, tea, coffee, and wagashi (Japanese sweets) may be served in the lobby. In the Edo period, when Noh was a day-long affair, more substantial makunouchi bentō (幕の内弁当, "between acts bento") was served. On special occasions, when the performance is over, お神酒 (o-miki, ceremonial sake) may be served in the lobby on the way out, as it happens in Shinto rituals.
There are seatings in front of the stage, to the left side of the stage, and in the corner front-left of stage; these are in order of decreasing desirability. While the metsuke-bashira pillar obstructs the view of the stage, the actors are primarily at the corners, not the center, and thus the two aisles are located where the views of the two main actors would be obscured, ensuring a generally clear view regardless of seating.
Influence in the West
Western artists influenced by Noh include:
- Bertolt Brecht
- Peter Brook
- Jacques Lecoq
- Jacques Copeau
- Eugenio Barba
- Jerzy Grotowski
- Heiner Müller
- Eugene O'Neill
- Osvobozené divadlo
- William Butler Yeats
- Paul Claudel
- William Henry Bell
- Benjamin Britten
- David Byrne
- Carlo Forlivesi
- Olivier Messiaen
- Harry Partch
- Karlheinz Stockhausen
- Iannis Xenakis
Zeami and Zenchiku describe a number of distinct qualities that are thought to be essential to the proper understanding of Noh as an art form.
- Hana (花, flower): the true Noh performer seeks to cultivate a rarefied relationship with his audience similar to the way that one cultivates flowers. What is notable about hana is that, like a flower, it is meant to be appreciated by any audience, no matter how lofty or how coarse his upbringing. Hana comes in two forms. Individual hana is the beauty of the flower of youth, which passes with time, while "true hana" is the flower of creating and sharing perfect beauty through performance.
- Yūgen (幽玄): much of the art of the 13th and 14th centuries in Japan; the term is used specifically in relation to Noh to mean the profound beauty of the transcendental world, including mournful beauty involved in sadness and loss.
- Kokoro or shin (both 心): Defined as "heart," "mind," or both. The kokoro of noh is that which Zeami speaks of in his teachings, and is more easily defined as "mind." To develop hana the actor must enter a state of no-mind, or mushin.
- Rōjaku (老弱): the final stage of performance development of the Noh actor, in which as an old man he eliminates all unnecessary action or sound in his performance, leaving only the true essence of the scene or action being imitated.
- Myō (妙): the "charm" of an actor who performs flawlessly and without any sense of imitation; he effectively becomes his role.
- Monomane (物真似, imitation or mimesis): the intent of a Noh actor to accurately depict the motions of his role, as opposed to purely aesthetic reasons for abstraction or embellishment. Monomane is sometimes contrasted with yūgen, although the two represent endpoints of a continuum rather than being completely separate.
- Kabu-isshin (歌舞一心, "song-dance-one heart"): the theory that the song (including poetry) and dance are two halves of the same whole, and that the Noh actor strives to perform both with total unity of heart and mind.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Nō.|
- Noh Events and Performance Schedule Nohgaku Promotion Association
- "Noh & Kyogen". Japan Arts Council.
- Noh Stories in English Ohtsuki Noh Theatre Foundation
- Nō Plays -Translations of thirteen Noh plays- Japanese Text Initiative, University of Virginia Library
- Virtual Reality and Virtual Irreality On Noh-Plays and Icons
- Page on the variable expressions of Noh masks
- Noh plays Photo Story and Story Paper the-Noh.com : Comprehensive Site on Noh
- "Hachi-No-Ki, A Perspective"
- nohmask.jp Photos of Noh-masks carved by Ichyuu Terai in Kyoto JAPAN.
- How to enjoy Noh
- Momoyama, Japanese Art in the Age of Grandeur, an exhibition catalog from The Metropolitan Museum of Art (fully available online as PDF), which contains material on Noh
- Buddhism in Noh by Royall Tyler