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Noh Theatre
Japanese Theatre
Noh Theatre
• Noh theater employs verse, prose, choral
singing and dance
• depicts formal themes—such as life and
death, drama and illusion, and Zen Buddhist
spirituality—based on religious tales and folk
Noh Theatre
• The main characters are often military heros and the
ghosts of the people they killed who haunt them and
seek revenge. The Noh performed today is virtually
the same as Noh performed in the Middle Ages.
Noh Theatre
• Thematically, Noh has
tended to have strong
supernatural elements.
• Stylistically, it is very
structured with nearly all
the movements being
tightly choreographed.
• Visually, Noh features
very austere stage sets
and sumptuous costumes
and dramatic masks.
Noh Theatre
• Until the late 1800s, Noh was performed in the open
air in gazebo-style stages on the ground of temples. In
the Meiji period drive toward Westernization Noh was
moved indoors into to a theater with a peaked roof
supported on four pillars.
• The square stage is made of cypress wood. The main
actors make their entrance on a hashi-gajkari bridge
lined with pine trees.
• The only adornment is a pine tree painting that serves
as the universal background and evokes the days when
performances were held outside
History of Noh
• Noh is one of the world's oldest continuallyperformed types of theater and the oldest of Japan’s
traditional performing arts.
• It has it roots in mime, acrobatics and sarugaku
(literally "monkey music"), a form of dance-drama
associated with agriculture, from the early Heian
Period (794-1185) and has had some links to China.
• In the early days, performers came from the lower
classes and served as both entertainers and as
performers of religious ceremonies.
History of noh
History of Noh
• Some scholar suggest that Noh grew out of gigaku, a form
of comical, silent drama where the actors wear different
masks, and there's musical accompaniment from percussion
and flute.
• In 752, a magnificent ceremony was held to consecrate the
new Buddha statue in Nara. A gigaku play was also
performed. A 7th century gigaku mask in the Shoso-in
collection depicts a ruddy-faced foreign king who lead a
group of drunken men. It’s high bridged- nose and other
strong features have led some to speculate the king was
supposed to be a Persian. Gigaku is thought to have
originated in the Wu kingdom of ancient China and was
introduced to Japan by the Paekche kingdom on the Korean
History of Noh
• Noh was performed at Kofukuji Temple in Nara in A.D. 869
during Buddhist Shunie ceremonies to pray for national
• Ishun Moriya, a senior priest at the temple, told the Daily
Yomiuri, “The performance contained many mystical
elements in the earliest days because they were performed by
Buddhists priests to thank Buddha for warding off evil...
History of Noh
• Gradually the spectrum broadened to include more
entertaining elements. Noh plays featuring Buddhist
rituals came to be performed by professionals, and the
spectacle’s reputation spread among nobles and
others...These performers received handsome benefits
from the elite administrators because their enrichment
of the temple’s rituals was highly valued.”
History of Noh
• Noh was traditionally performed at
Buddhist temples. The use of masks
and the frequent appearance of ghosts
is based in the fact that Noh
originated in a time of war and
upheaval when many people were
preoccupied with death and the
History of Noh
• Noh settled into its present form around the 14th
century. In the mid 14th century noh was dominated
by humorous and entertaining plays known as sarugaku
or sangaku. The pioneers of the Noh form were the
playwright Kanami (1333-1384) and his son, Zeami
(1363-1443). The first Noh performances was when 12year-old Zeami and Kanami danced sarugaku in front
of the 18-year-old shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu in
1374 in Kyoto. Under the patronage of Yoshimitsu,
Zeami and Kanami developed Noh by incorporating
elements of their performing arts, poetry and classical
and current topic into the dance.
History of Noh
• Noh became the official art form of the
samurai class and enjoyed by famous Japanese
historical figures such as Oda Nobunaga and
Toyotimi Hideyoshi. In the Edo Period (16031868), a single Noh performance could take up
an entire day and themes were often things
close to samurai’s heart, such as honor, duty
and revenge and Zen austerity.
History of Noh
• Five schools of Noh are still in
existence. The humorous forms of
sarugaku survived as an
independent art form that came to
be known as kyogen, which has
traditionally been performed in the
intervals between Noh plays.
Noh Masks
• The elaborate masks in Noh theater
are usually expressionless, which
means that it is the responsibility of
the actor to convey emotion through
body movements. The masks represent
the characters minds and hearts and
trace their origins back to exorcism and
rice planting rites.
Noh Masks
• Specific masks are associated with
specific characters. A devil-like,
horned mask, for example, is worn by
an actor playing Hannya, the jealous,
revengeful demon who was once a
beautiful woman. Noh masks have
been used by engineers developing
robots that respond accurately to
human facial expressions.
Noh Masks
There are around 60 basic masks
each with their own name. Some
have variation. If these are
included there about 200 different
types. Some schools have their own
masks which are hundreds of years
old. In the old days the masks were
made from paulownia or camphor
but today most are made from hinki
cypress because it has few knots
and a straight grain.
Noh Masks
• The masks are carefully made with a lack of symmetry in the
features. They are painted with three or four layers of a
pigment made of ground seashell and animal glue an then
sandpapered. These steps are repeated several times so create
a smooth surface. Shading is achieved using brown pigments
made from soot boiled in rice wine, Most facial features are
painted with India ink. The teeth were often black (blackened
teeth were a fashion statement in Japan until the 19th
century). Masks for supernatural being have gold dust mixed
with glue. The back of the mask is painted red, waxed, and
chemically burned. The art making masks has been passed
down over generations from father to son.
Noh Masks
• The oldest wooden mask in Japan was found
in the Makimiku ruins Sakurai, Nara. Used
perhaps in an agricultural ceremony that
influenced Noh, it was carved with a farming
hoe in the early A.D. 3rd century. The masks is
21.5 centimeters long and 31,5 centimeters
wide and has no holes for straps which
indicated it was probably held up with hands,
Noh Costumes
Noh costumes are very lavish and
elaborate. In the old days they
were taken care of by nobility and
guarded by the military. The
costumes have a basic straight line
cut and consist of a knee-length
padded silk robe worn with a small
pillow to give the abdomen a
rounded look; a long stiff divided
skirt and outer robe. Different
robes or worn by the male and
female characters. Accessories
include wigs and fans.
Noh Costumes
• The way the garments are worn often has a
special meaning, the right sleeve flipped off
and dropped over the performer’s back, for
example, indicates active movement or
madness. An outer robe tacked onto the pants
indicates a lady of the court. If a considerable
amount of dancing is done lighter garments
are worn. Dressers are generally a thing of the
past the actors generally dress each other.
Noh Performers
• Noh features only male actors. A Noh
troupe consists of the tachikata (performers
who don masks, act and dance) and the
hayashikata (musicians who are in charge
of beating time and intensifying the
emotional atmosphere of the play). Some
Noh roles are regarded as so special that
Noh actors are only allowed to play them
once in their lifetimes.
Noh Performers
Noh Performers
• A typical Noh performance employs three or four
musicians. Traditional instruments in the Noh wind
and percussion ensemble include the nakan (a vertical
flute) and tsuzumi (small hand drums). The musicians
sometimes shout and sing when they perform. Big clay
pots are placed sin hollow spaced beneath the wooden
stage to amplify sound, mainly footsteps and
Noh Performers
• There are two main types of Noh actors: the
shite (the one who acts, protagonist) and the
waki (the one who watches, antagonist). The
main characters are shites (pronounced
sh’tay) who usually wear masks. They are
generally a supernatural being such as ghosts,
demons, gods or ghosts—or a woman. Waki
nether wear a mask or make up because they
represent living, breathing men.
Noh Performers
• A typical performance features a shite, a waki, four
musicians at the back and eight chorus members
slightly off stage left. The story is relayed by the
chorus, accompanied by the musicians.
• Most actors are trained in family run schools. There
are currently only four schools (three in Tokyo and one
in Kyoto). Many famous actors come from Noh
families and make their first appearances when they
are 4 or 5.
Noh Performers
Noh Performances
• "Noh is essentially a form a religious theater with
aesthetic coded defined by the austerities and minimalism
of Zen."
• It combines music, dance, drama and instrumental music.
Unlike kabuki, which emphasizes grand gestures and
spectacle, Noh gets its punch from subtlety and
understatement. The sets are usually empty of props and
the masks are intended to keep facial expressions from
performers who aim to express themselves through slow
movement that are regarded by admirers as economical
but powerful.
Noh Performances
• Noh actors follow strictly prescribed footsteps
and movements across the stage. In may ways,
Noh is better appreciated as a form of visual art
one contemplates and mediates over while
watching rather than a performing art that is
expected to be entertaining. Many Westerners
artists, Y.B. Yeats in particular, were mesmerized
by Noh and what it tried to do.
Noh Performances
• Noh is full of symbolism. In many Noh dramas the
shite is spirit or ghosts who remains in one place
because of some tragedy and role of the waki is to
demask him. The demasking usually brings an end to
the first act, with the second act being a recreation of
the tragedy, which is can be a cathartic process or a
painful one, depending on how the play is written or
Noh Plays
• Tsuchigumo (“The Ground Spider”) is a classic tale of
brave warriors confronting a terrifying spider monster.
The main character, Raiko, is based on a historical
figure from about 1,000 years ago. The spider image is
said to have originated from a disparaging term for
indigenous people and is thus seen as a commentary on
the way that Raiku may have treated indigenous people
and the way the indigenous people rebelled. In the most
dramatic seen four warriors attack the spider who
responds by emitting threads that look like white washi
paper fireworks. The slaying of the spider is seen as
Raiku’s victory over the indigenous people.
Noh Plays
Noh Plays
• Okina, the oldest play in the Noh repertoire, is rarely
performed. Hagoromo, one of the classics of Noh
theater, is about a fisherman that finds a beautiful robe
hanging from a pine tree. When an angel comes to
claim it, the fishermen refuses to turn it over. After
being enlightened about the foolish ways of humans he
reluctantly hands the robe over and is rewarded with a
dance by the angel.
Noh Plays
• Sesshoseki (“The Life-Killing Stone) is a famous Noh
story about a monk that happens on a mysterious stone
with no plants or living things around. A woman
suddenly appears and tells the monk the stone contains
the spirit of a woman who became an emperor’s
concubine in a bid to overthrow the ruling dynasty and
was killed and driven into the stone by a priest. The
woman then revealed herself to be the spirit of the
stone and asks the monk to pray for her so she can stop
Noh Plays
• Lady Senju like many classic Japanese tragedies is based on an
incident from the Heike Monogatari (“The Tale of the Heike”),
an epic takes set during the 12th century when the Taira
(Heike) and Minamoto (Genji) clans battled for control of
Japan. In the story the hero Taira no Shigehara has been
captured by the enemy and taken to Kyoto most likely to be
put to death. Munemochi, a Minamoto retainer, take pity on
him and sends the elegant courtesan Senju to entertain and
console him for what might be his last night on earth. Most of
the play’s action revolves around a banquet with sake and
music and dancing prepared by Senju for Shigehira.
Noh Plays
• In Lady Senju Senju and Shigehire make
beautiful mimed music together on the biwa
and koto. The only music heard comes from
the flute and drums of the Noh musicians. A
sexual union is suggested by a scene in which
the pair face each other and hold fans, which
symbolize pillows.
Other Noh Plays
• Other include Hibariyama, a Snow-White-like tale of
daughter sent in the forest by a servant ordered to kill her;
Utou, the story of a hunter, who from the dead expresses
remorse over all the animals he has killed; Tome, about a
troubled mistress of a teenage warrior; and Kanawa, the
story of a scorned woman who becomes an evil spirit and
attacks her husband
• Noh is alive outside of Japan. The Theater of Yigen in San Francisco has been
staging Noh performances for more than 25 years. One American fan told the
Daily Yomiuri she liked Noh because it “creates another kind of reality” and
“pushes aside the veils that we have between time and space.”
• Noh is invigorating itself in Japan by integrating influences from the outside.
Kuniyoshi Ueda, a professor at Shizuoka University, has dedicated his life to
producing Noh versions of Shakespeare plays in Japanese and English. Ueda
pioneered the idea while on Fullbright scholarship at Harvard doing a Noh
version of Hamlet, which has been staged over 100 times in a number of
countries, including Australia, China, Sweden, Canada, Denmark and
Vietnam. An Ueda-choreographed Noh version of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House was
performed in Norway,
Shite: The main character of a Noh play –
(pronounced sh’tay)
Waki: Antagonist of Noh Play
Yuugen: Elegant & Ideal beauty – Main
ideas from many Noh Plays
Kyogen: shorter, humorous plays within a Noh
Hayashi: instrumentalists who play instruments during
Noh Performances
Koken: stage hands for Noh Performances (1-3 people)
Kami Mono: typically feature the shite in the role of a
human in the first act and a deity in the second and tell
the mythic story of a shrine or praise a particular spirit.
Shura Mono: warrior plays) have the shite often
appearing as a ghost in the first act and a warrior in full
battle regalia in the second, re-enacting the scene of his
Katsura Mono: woman plays) depict the shite in a female
role and feature some of the most refined songs and
dances in all of Noh.
Kiri No: 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
Mugen Noh: usually deals with spirits, ghosts, phantasms,
and supernatural worlds. Time is often depicted as passing in
a non-linear fashion, and action may switch between two or
more timeframes from moment to moment.
Genzai Noh: as mentioned above, depicts normal events of
the everyday world. However, when contrasted with mugen
instead of with the other four categories, the term
encompasses a somewhat broader range of plays.
Geki Noh: drama plays are based around the advancement
of plot and the narration of action.
Furyu Noh: dance plays focus rather on the aesthetic qualities
of the dances and songs which are performed.
Kagami-ita: The back wall of a noh stage is called the
kagami-ita on which a pine tree called the oi-matsu is painted.
Waki-bashira: Area in front, right corner where the Waki sits
through-out the play
Shite-Bashira: Area in rear, left corner where the Shite sits
through-out the play
Fue-Bashira: rear, right corner, closest to the flute
Hashigakari: bridgeway stretches from the main stage
to the mirror room.
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