Noh, with its emphasis on the Japanese aesthetics of profundity and sublimity, continues to intrigue both the Japanese and foreign audiences alike. Coming from the character 能, which means “talent” or “skill”, this art form is the oldest among Japan’s traditional schools of theater: noh, bunraku, kyogen, and kabuki .
At its core, noh is a performance of song and dance, drawing upon Japan's rich history and literature. It differentiates itself from other art forms, such as kabuki, in that it focuses on the human condition rather than on a riveting plot. These plays evoke an atmosphere of yugen, a sense of profound and elusive beauty; it urges the audience to think deeply and self-reflect. The elaborate masks, slow movement, and steady pace all contribute to form this mystical experience.
History of Noh
Noh as it is known today originates in the 14th century during the Muromachi period. Kan’ami and his son, Zeami refined this art form, leaving behind numerous works which provided a foundation for noh to be built upon. Unlike kabuki whose target audience was the common people, noh was an art to be enjoyed exclusively by the the royalty and nobles at special ceremonies. However, it later became a performance for everyone to appreciate. The popularity of noh began to decline during the Meiji Restoration, but it gained a resurgence after World War II. Since noh emphasizes tradition over innovation, little changes have been made to it during its 650-year history.
Kyogen, lighter comedic pieces, are usually performed between the more serious noh plays. Together, they form the critically acclaimed, globally recognized art of nohgaku, which was designated as an intangible cultural property by the Japanese government in 1957 and as an element in UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2001.
The performers and stage
Men perform both the male and female parts and occupy various roles within the play. The shite performer plays the main character, and the waki performer take on a supporting role. Music is done by the hayashi, who play various instruments such as flutes and drums. In order to ensure that the noh drama is running smoothly, the koken, or stage attendants, help the performers by handing them props.
One of the most noticeable characteristics about noh is the mask (omote), which is worn by the shite. These masks play a pivotal role as they are used to represent different characters, from humans to gods to demons, bringing them to life. The performer can tilt the mask in varying orientations to express different moods. Besides these distinct masks, other props, such as fans, are used to further enhance the expressiveness of noh performances.
Noh is performed on a simple square stage resembling a temple or shrine. A notable aspect about this stage is a bridge, operating as a place for characters to enter and exit.
Types of Noh Plays
Noh plays can be separated into two general categories, genzai noh and mugen noh. The former depicts events in the real world, exploring the main character’s inner turmoil. On the other hand, the latter contains supernatural elements, such as demons or gods. Noh plays can also be divided into five categories based on their content, which range from noh about the spirit of celestial women (kazura mono) to ones about the spirit of warriors (shura noh).
Noh’s poetic nature and rich storytelling is sure to leave an impression on whoever attends one of these plays.
Experiencing noh for yourself
If you want to watch this masterful performance, you're in luck! For a premium experience, please join us on January 29 (Monday) to watch the noh drama entitled A Flower at the Shibuya Cerulean Tower Noh Theater. Afraid that you won't be able to understand what is going on? This will not be a problem, as you can watch the performance with subtitles (Japanese, English, French and Chinese), readily available on your tablet or smartphone. An original photo book will also be given for you to take home instead of the typical brochure. Snacks and cocktails, as well as a special surprise are all included in this exclusive event. To find more information, please visit the official website (http://nohgaku-experience.com/flower).