Everything to Know About Noh

One of the things that make Japanese culture truly interesting is how its element manages to intertwine history, tradition, art, and religion to form diverse subsets of art. Whether it is through written literary works, paintings, or theater, it is not hard to find a specific genre which had been affected by all of these elements.

 A good example of a Japanese art form that is rooted in traditional, artistic, and religious elements is Noh. Written as No in Japanese kanji, it is considered to be the oldest form of classical Japanese drama. In particular, Noh theater includes song performances, making it a form of musical drama. O this day, Noh has still maintained its popularity and presence among Japanese art enthusiasts.

This art form has made a big historical impact in the world of Japanese art and religion, having been around for more than seven hundred years already. The elements of Noh can be broken down to the dance, the music, the stage, the poetry, and the props, which usually include the mask.It draws a lot of inspiration from works in Buddhism, and the life during the Heian period. The primary elements of Noh theatre art will be tackled later on in succeeding parts of this article.

The Beginning of Noh Theatre

Considering it is the oldest form of theatre art in Japan, one can’t help but wonder how the art form was conceived some seven hundred years ago. It was born as a combination of different forms of art. An interesting fact about it is that it even incorporates elements from Chinese culture. A part of Noh rises from religious practices that were once practiced by the Chinese.

Noh is the earliest surviving form of Japanese drama. It was originally a ritualistic type of performance rooted in Shinto Buddhism practices such as harvest dances. However, later on, it started involving more performance style techniques such as singing and dancing. These types of techniques were borrowed from neighboring China and part of the ever-growing influence that Chinese culture had at the time.

Events usually took place at shrines and temples, as there were meant to be used as a tool relay religious teachings, while at the same time, providing a source of entertainment to the audiences.In between the 13th and 14th century, Noh became more popular and started evolving into the form of Noh today. It started veering away from being a ritualistic type of performance and moved forward to other theatre type performance such as singing, dancing and the like.

Based on historical accounts, it was in the year 1375 when then shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu first watched a Noh performance. It was there that he developed his passion for Noh, and made a life-long commitment to developing it. The performance was done by Kanami Kiyotsugu and Zeami Motokiyo, who would end up working side by side with Ashikaga Yoshimitsu in order to develop Noh. For this reason, the art of Noh flourished so much and became more popular during the time of Yoshimitsu. In the end, it became a sophisticated form of drama that was enjoyed primarily by the aristocracy.

Through Zeami Motokiyo, an official manual on how to perform Noh was created. This was a major milestone for the art as this manual is still being used at present time by Noh performers. Aside from creating basic guidelines for Noh, he was also responsible for writing approximately one hundred plays. Although, historical sources believe that some of the stories may have been borrowed from his father’s works. His market for his art was the upper-class Japanese of the time, as the wealthy Japanese started taking interest in the arts. A popular setting for his Noh stories take place during the Heian period, and it comes to no surprise since that period was considered as the renaissance of Japan.

While Yoshimitsu as Shogun worked hard to push Noh as an art that would be appreciated by many, it was truly Zeami who worked for that purpose and made it entirely possible. To this day, Zeami’s works are still being performed in Noh Theatre. His more popular works include Takasago and The Well Curb.

Through Yoshimitsu’s efforts, Noh actors were given incentives to improve their social status. His primary goal for such is to keep the art purely for the wealthy. A major drawback of Yoshimitsu’s approach is that he prevented commoners from enjoying Noh - which meant they couldn’t learn the songs and dances. In a way, Noh became an instrument of discrimination for the lesser social classes.

 In the Muromachi period, which occurred between the early 1300’s to the 1500’s, Noh grew so much as an art form. This was driven primarily by the increase of Noh dramas, which had grown to more than one thousand plays thanks to Zeami. It was also during this part of Japanese history when Noh started moving forward as a theatre art, and less as a religious symbol.

In its infancy, a makeshift stage was constructed for each performance at a temple or shrine. This changed entirely by the end of the Muromachi, as this period saw the construction of the first theatre buildings in Japan. The development of Noh paused temporarily when Japan plunged into civil war for almost a hundred years.

However, despite ceasing its development, the popularity of Noh still continued to rise. This time, the popularity is starting to reach other classes that go beyond the aristocracy. It was also during this time when the popularity of other traditional Japanese elements such as the tea ceremony and other art forms became more open to the samurai classes of Japan. They are considered to be the next level after the aristocracy.

After the war, and during the dawn of the Unification of Japan, Noh was once again placed in the spotlight. As peace and stability started to spread again in Japan, the shogunate once again took an interest in Noh. It became extremely popular for the shogun’s back them, to the extent that they mandated to include Noh performances in their coronation festivities. However, as Japan started to transition to a more modern society, the status of the samurai class started seeing a decline.

With social status starting to become more equalized in Japan, the popularity of Noh started to reach the other classes who were once forbidden to watch Noh. This gave the middle and lower classes the same opportunities to engage and appreciate Noh theatre. It was during the end of the Meiji Restoration when the government started losing focus on Noh and more on diplomatic and economic affairs. However, despite that, the art of Noh was still maintained and supported by enthusiasts from the upper classes. In a way, Noh had been present in every twist and turn of Japanese history. 

Kyogen: What Japanese Religion is Noh Theatre Rooted In?

 As mentioned earlier, Noh originated as a ritualistic performance that was performed originally by Shinto Buddhism. It’s original goal as an art was to convey teachings that were aligned to the teachings of Buddhism, while still being engaging to its audience. This is perhaps the reason why Noh performances have an intermission number called Kyogen.

 It has been customary that during intervals or in between Noh plays, there is a short performance - lasting around only half and hour for kyogen performance. Some would consider Kyogen to be a form of an art form in itself as it also included a mix of ritualistic and performance elements. These performances include traditional forms such as sarugaku, kusemai, kagura, eunen, dengaku, bugaku and furyu. These are all elements that were borrowed from Chinese performances that revolved around Buddhism

 However, more that it’s entertainment value, the real agenda of kyogen is to reinforce or explain the moral of the Noh play, while keeping the audience engaged. Kyogen performances usually involve two characters on the stage discussing the educational part of Noh. These two characters are called a shite and an ado. However, in other forms of Kyogen they are called the Taro Kajya and the Jiro Kajya.

Breaking Down The Elements of Noh Theater

 What makes the art of Noh truly successful is how it merged different elements to form a sophisticated form of art. By elements, this goes well beyond the actual performances, but rather includes also the props, the music, and other parts that contribute to the Noh performance as a whole such as the dance, the music, the props, and the setting.

Japanese Noh: Dance

 For one, dance in an important element of many Noh plays. Usually, Noh plays would incorporate dances that are slow. However, there is no exact dancing style. Instead there the dance aspect varies according to the play material being performed. Instead of a musical play type of performance where all the actors sing and dance together, dance performances involved in  Noh are usually solos that last for only several minutes.

 One of the values ingrained towards the mind of Noh dancers is that they must be able to dance flawlessly, that the audience would not see any effort being made. Rather, it must seem easy and effortless for them. In a way, it helps that the main goal of Noh dancing is meant to be smooth and free flowing, with the dancers’ movements as fluid as when writing with a brush.

 There is a variety of movements or “kata” which could be performed by the dancers, though there is generally not a defined single style. The core dance move that is most important during a performance is done by walking in a sliding motion, with one foot forward, then performing a pivot up and down. The kind of walk done by a Noh dancer is even more important that the other dance moves. In fact, the best type of compliment that can be given to a Noh dancer is to tell him or her that his walking is good.

 The other dance moves in Noh are less like dance moves and resemble everyday life actions. These types of movements would include viewing a scene, riding a horse, holding a shield or weeping. Sometimes, stamping movements are also integrated within the play. For this movement, extra props are used to enhance the impact of the action. Large clay pots are placed underneath the stage floor to enhance the sound effects done by stamping.

Japanese Noh: Music

 A Hayashi, which is some sort of a choir is in charge of playing the musical aspect of the play. Similar to the other parts of Noh which are considered to be integral pieces of the whole play, the same treatment is given to the Hayashi, with them being equally important in presence as the main actors.

The Hayashi group usually involves four people with four instruments. These instruments include the flute, the shoulder drum, the hip drum, and the stick drum. Collectively, these four instruments are known as the shibayoshi. An interesting fact about members of the Hayashi is that a plethora of these musicians are from established families in the Noh world, where the interest in the art is passed from one generation to the other. 

It is also a requirement for each musician to be able to play any of the instruments. This means that he or she must have studied all the instruments intensively already. However, despite that,  they can only specialize in one chosen instrument and will only get to perform using that one instrument in their Noh career.

The lead of the Hayashi group in the performance is the taiko. However, not all Noh performances have leads. Instead, there are other set-ups when the daisho-mono is considered the leader. A primary reason for this is because the sound of hitting the drum is one of the ways for the group to stay in rhythmic harmony. However, the drummers also make use their voices to create drum calls. These are called kakegoe and are done before hitting the drum. This allows the other group members to adjust their own the timing and rhythm.

Japanese Noh: Theatre Masks 

Noh performances are distinctly known for the use of plain masks. In its most traditional form, only one character can wear a mask to signify his importance as the main character, or the shite However, in some cases, other characters are also made to wear masks. In particular, the female roles are sometimes made to wear masks. These Noh masks are used to signify that the character is either a woman or a youngster. However, other forms of Noh make use of masks as well to represent either old men or non-human creatures - whether good or bad. Noh actors who are not made to wear masks signify that their role is that of an adult man. Alongside masks, onna mono or wigs are worn to signify the shite is portrating a femalre role.

Noh masks are very basic in shape - usually, they just cover the entire face and have four small holes for the eyes nostrils and mouth. They are not heavy, to prevent any inconvenience for the Noh actors, which is why typical masks are made of cypress wood. Usually, basic details such as hair and the outlines of the eyes are traced with black ink to add more depth to the mask. 

The facial expression of the masks is neutral, so that the audience may only see this expression from the actor An interesting fact about these masks is that before the actors put on the mask, they usually gaze at it first for a while in order to absorb be aligned with mask’s essence, allowing his presence to disappear completely while he is underneath the mask.

Japanese Noh: Stage

 Originally, a makeshift stage was created during temple or shrine performances. Originally, these temporary stages comprised of the main stage, a corridor, a backstage, and a side stage, with strong pillars built on each corner of the stage to form a support. The entirety of the stage is bare, aside from the customary painting of a pine tree, which is painted there as a Buddhist element.

At present, Noh is performed at modern locations such modern amphitheatsers and performance venues. It is also common for schools or universities with art programs to hold Noh shows on campus. Anyone looking for a venue to watch a Noh play would surely find several productions on art campuses.