Noh theater, compared to kabuki, is the more refined, aristocratic form of Japanese theater. Paul Binnie, the author of this article lived in Tokyo for more than five years and became an expert and afficionado for Japanese theater.
The history of the whole of Japanese theater might have been entirely different if, in 1375 at Kasuge Temple near Nara, two adolescent boys had not formed a passionate friendship, a special relationship that would cause a unique and ultimately influential art form to come into being.
The elder of the young men was Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, aged 17, the powerful dynastic shogun and ruler of all Japan, and he had experienced an early form of Noh performed by Kanami Kiyotsugu and his twelve year old son Zeami Motokiyo.
It is due to Yoshimitsu's patronage and interest in early Noh that this dramatic form was able to develop into the highly refined, serene theater which we can see today.
The early origins of Noh theater were mostly folk-type forms of rustic entertainment; Sarugaku, which was connected to Shinto rituals, Dengaku, a kind of acrobatics with juggling, which later developed into a type of song-and-dance, Chinese-derived dances, and recited and chanted ballads which formed part of the oral tradition of the people.
By the middle of the fourteenth century, these various sources seem to have been combined into a form of theater recognizable to modern audiences as Noh, although just what those early plays were like is hard to say.
There are plays believed by scholars to be by Kanami (1333-1385), but they seem to have been heavily revised by his son Zeami (1363-1443), and no surviving play can be securely dated to before their era.
Zeami is the prime figure in Noh, having written a vast quantity of plays for his troupe to perform, many of which are still regularly performed to this day. He also wrote a very famous treatise in 1423 on the skills and methods necessary for a Noh actor, and that document is still valid study for young actors.
What Zeami, inspired by his father, managed to create, was a theater of the Muromachi period (1336-1573), written in the upper-class language of the fourteenth century, but which looked back to the supposed Golden Age of the Heian Period (794-1185), by basing plays on people, events and even poetry of that era creating texts of astonishing richness and opacity.
Noh exists today in a form almost unchanged since Zeami's day, and while the repertoire may have shrunk from the over one thousand plays in the Muromachi period, there have been several plays written over the years, at least one of which, "Kusu no Tsuyu", written in the late nineteenth century, is often performed.
One reason for this is that there is a grandeur and beauty in the plays not to be found elsewhere.
Indeed, the word yuugen, meaning that which lies below the surface, with connotations of nobility, reserved elegance and classical refinement is often used about Noh, and it especially applies to several plays about the Heian period poetess and great beauty Ono no Komachi in old age, when she has lost her looks and her court position, but still appears dressed in silks and satins of restrained hue.
There is also a kind of abstraction in Noh which was centuries more advanced than in the west, and indeed it is discouraged to appear to imitate the external forms of people and objects too closely, concentrating rather on the essence or soul which the actor will attempt to recreate.
One of the most striking aspects of the Noh is that the shite, the main actor, may wear a mask, as may his companions, or tsure. This occurs when the main character is an old man, a youth, a woman, or a supernatural character. Tsure accompany the shite in certain plays, and if they represent one of these groups, they will also be masked, but the shite will not wear a mask if his character is an adult male.
Kokata, or boy actors, never wear masks, nor do waki, the secondary characters who appear first on stage to set the scene, and meet the main actor.
Masks are carved from wood, often cedar, which is then gessoed and painted, and include some of the most moving works of sculptural art in Japan, and, since there are so many different types, it takes a certain familiarity with them to recognize specific types.
The other ubiquitous prop is the fan, which in a symbolic theater such as Noh, can represent all manner of other objects, such as bottles, swords, pipes, letters walking sticks and so on.
The play will be performed on a stage open on three sides, and with a painted backboard representing a pine tree behind. A sort of walkway, called the hashigakari leads onto the stage right position from an entrance doorway at right angles to the backboard.
Along the hashigakari are three small pine trees, and these define areas where the actor may pause to deliver lines, before arriving on the main roofed stage, which is about six metres square.
Ranged along in front of the backboard is a group of musicians whose instruments include a flute, a shoulder drum, a hip drum and sometimes a stick drum. The musicians are responsible for the otherworldly, strange music which accompanies dance and recitation alike.
Again at right angles to the backboard, at extreme stage left, there is the chorus of eight to twelve chanters arranged in two rows and it is their job to take over the narration of the story, or the lines of the main character if he is engaged in a dance.
These elements all contribute to a cohesive whole which creates a richly textured background against which the play is enacted, and since no scenery, few props and only a small cast appears, the imagination of the audience is left to roam freely.
In general, Japanese Noh plays are not very dramatic, although they are beautiful, since the text is full of poetical allusions and the dances, though slow, are extremely elegant.
It is this very beauty which makes Noh a living art form still, over six hundred years after it developed, and which has caused all subsequent Japanese theatrical forms to draw on aspects of Noh. Kabuki, for example, has lifted complete Noh plays into its vernacular, as well as deriving many of its technical aspects of performance from Noh.
The Japanese Noh also antedates many developments in contemporary theater, such as no scenery, symbolic use of props and the appearance of non-actors on the stage.
The Noh theater still speaks to audiences today, as evinced by the crowds which still rush to buy tickets for performances at the National Noh Theater, and at the five theaters belonging to the five troupes of Noh.
It is a truely timeless artform, which speaks to modern audiences as it did to the noblemen and women of the Muromachi period.
Paul Binnie, July 2001
Edited by Dieter Wanczura
Watch this documentary about the Noh theatre. Thanks to walkingthroughapark for sharing this with us.
Author: Dieter Wanczura