The Nihon Review - Anime Reviews & Editorials

Noh Drama

An actor moves gracefully across the stage. He says not a word, but his motions and costume say everything. The simple and rhythmic music and chorus set the mood for the graceful and ancient drama that is Noh. The history of Noh, the costumes, the masks, the stage, the instruments and the many different characters and plays are each an important aspect of Noh that makes it special among the different kinds of theatre.

The earliest known influence on what we today call “Noh” is the Okina dance, which was used to show submission to the Yamato court by singing songs and dancing dances that had been handed down through ancient times. At around the same time, when Buddhism was introduced in Japan from China, it brought with it forms of music and dance such as Gigaku and Bugaku, both of which involved masked dancers and were performed for the nobility at court. In 701, Bugaku, blended with Kagura, an ancient Shinto ritualistic dance, became the official court music for the Yamato court. Noh also draws influence from the Sangaku, a type of entertainment for commoners similar to modern circuses, containing things such as sword swallowing and balancing acts. During the Heian period, Sangaku began to have new dramatic qualities and was performed at shrines. Later, theatres for Sangaku began to appear, and the performances were attended by people of all classes. Dengaku, a harvest dance with religious overtones, began to influence court dance when the nobility became fascinated by them. This fascination led to Dengaku becoming an important part of shrine festivities in the capital, and eventually led to the nobility dancing the Dengaku themselves. The greatest influence on Noh was Furyu drama, which was presented with Rambu, a mime-like Sangaku consisting of dance without set choreography or music, and Toben, light and comic skits about the origin of temples, as a program for religious festivals. This was in the Kamakura period from 1185 to 1333. Noh drama as we know it today was first performed in the 14th century during the Muromachi era as court entertainment and kept its government patronage until the Meiji era.

The plays are poetic, and the scripts follow the seven-five rhythm, much like Haiku. The principles that Noh adheres to are imitation, truth is beauty, and the sublime. Imitation, the first principle, means that actors are supposed to portray things as they are and not embellish them. Truth is beauty (Yugen), the second principle, states that the beautiful aspect of anything can be brought out if acted skillfully enough. The last principle is the sublime, an entity’s silent, stately, austere beauty, which is demonstrated in the plays.

There are four types of performers in Noh, and the actors in each type are exclusively male. The Shite perform many functions, and have several sub-groups including the Jiutai, or chorus who chant the plays in a small tonal range with long passages that are repeated dynamically. They play the main role which is also called the Shite, as well the Tsure, the Shite’s companion, and the Koken, who serve as stage assistants. The Kyogen perform separate plays between the Noh dramas and perform the interludes during plays. Finally, there are the Hayashi, who play the music.

Four different instruments are used by the Hayashi in Noh drama. The nohkan, a flute made from 100 year old bamboo, the otsuzumi, a drum which makes a high sharp pitch that sounds like a pop, the taiko drum, a large drum that is played with two sticks, and the kotsuzumi, a drum which can make four different sounds by adjusting the cords on the side. These sounds are called “po,” “pu,” “ta,” and “chi.”

The Noh stage is made of Hinoki, or Japanese Cyprus wood. There is a painting of a pine tree behind the stage, called the Kagami-Ita, which according to one theory symbolizes a method that Shinto gods used to descend to earth in Shinto rituals. Another theory is that the painting is there to remind the viewers of the pine trees behind the Kasuga shrine in Nara. Actors enter the stage on the left by means of a narrow bridge called the Hashigakari. Under the stage are five earthen jars which cause the sounds of the singing and stomping to reverberate.

The costumes worn by the actors are very intricate and tell us things about the character portrayed through the use of color. White is the most dignified color and is used to portray nobles. Brown is the least dignified color and is used for farmers and servants. Red indicates the actor is portraying a young girl and darker colors are indicative of older women. Characters with quick tempers wear light blue. Dark blue tells us the actor is portraying an extroverted person. Light green is used for unimportant characters.

Perhaps the most recognizable part of Noh Drama is the masks. There are many different kinds of masks including those to portray deities, men, women, sages, devils, warriors (Kagekiyo), witches, insane people, mythological creatures, old men (okina) and old women (Uba). Each mask shows an aspect of a character, such as the beauty of a woman.

During the Muromachi era about 1000 plays were written, but 400 of them are lost to us. Today, around 250 different Noh plays are performed. These plays fall into five types. In God plays, the Shite is a god or a messenger of a god. These plays are performed to praise gods who have protected Japan since ancient times. In Warrior plays, the Shite plays the role of a Samurai, who is usually in hell for recognizing only worldly honor instead of both worldly and higher honor. The Woman plays are the slowest in tempo, but are the most poetic and emphasize elegance, grace, and beauty. The play consists of a beautiful woman whom lived a mostly good life, but whose soul haunts the world to repent for something. The Shite will wear a mask like an angry woman-like demon in a Demon or Supernatural being play. The Demon/Supernatural being plays have a strong rhythm and a fast tempo and demonstrate that miracles can happen as well as that souls can be redeemed. Last are the miscellaneous plays, which concern the duties of man, compassion, righteousness, politeness, wisdom, and faithfulness. These plays are also called Glory plays.

Noh drama is a beautiful and unique form of art that has stood the test of time. It is my hope that you now have a newfound respect for this traditional theatre and a greater understanding of its many aspects.

Written by: Kuma

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