Japanese Arts (IV): Noh

Japanese Arts (IV): Noh

Noh, which originated in Japan, is the one of oldest performing arts in the world. It is a theatrical performance that combines dance, drama, music, and poetry. Its themes are usually related to dreams, the supernatural world, ghosts, and spirits. Noh has an important place in Japanese culture. It has been inscribed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list because of its unique cultural values.

What is Noh?


Stories of Noh are based on traditional literature, depicting both real and legendary events. There are two performance styles of Noh: Geki Noh (dramatic Noh) and Furyu Noh (elegant Noh). The former is a drama based on plot advancement and narration of action, while the latter is a dance piece featuring elaborate movements.

According to subjects, Noh can be divided into three types: Genzai Noh (present Noh) features human characters and events that unfold in a linear timeline; Mugen Noh (fantasy Noh) features gods, ghosts, spirits, or phantoms in a supernatural world, unfolding in a non-linear timeline; Ryokake Noh (mixed Noh) is a mix of the two subjects, the first act of which is Genzai Noh and the second act is Mugen Noh.

Normally, Noh is short, and each program will consist of up to five Noh plays. A formal five-play Noh consists of a selection from each of the following five themes:

  1. Kami mono (god plays): It tells a mythic story with a god as the main character.
  2. Shura mono (warrior plays): The story is about the ghost of a samurai praying for salvation. The drama ends with a dramatic re-enactment of his death.
  3. Katsura mono (wig plays) / onna mono (women plays): These are plays with the most elaborate songs and dances. The main character of a katsura mono is a female, so they are sometimes called onna mono.
  4. Kiri Noh (ending plays) / oni mono (demon plays): It is a play with monsters or demons as the main character. Normally, it is a play of lively action and an intense ending.
  5. Miscellaneous plays: These include kyoran mono (madness plays), onryĹŤ mono (vengeful ghost plays), genzai mono (plays about the present), and so on.

History of Noh


The name Noh is derived from the Kanji with the same name, “nō,” which means talent. Noh developed from the 12th-century festival plays of shrines and temples and from old dance plays. In the Muromachi period (1336-1573), Noh was formalized by an actor named Zeami and attracted patronage from the government, shrines, and temples.

During the Tokugawa period (1603-1867), the shogunate made Noh the official ceremonial play. The government introduced regulations to ensure the high standard and historical authenticity of Noh, making Noh treasure tradition more than innovation. In order to make Noh exclusive to the nobility, commoners were forbidden to learn the music and dances of Noh. It was not until the end of the Tokugawa period, when the samurai class lost its power, that Noh became popular among the general public.

In 1867, Noh suffered a great financial crisis due to the fall of the government. The strike lingered during the Meiji era (1868-1912), which led to a reduction of Noh performers and Noh stages. However, Noh survived those days thanks to private sponsorship. In 1957, the Japanese government designated Noh as an Intangible Cultural Property, providing legal protection for its revival.

Elements of Noh


Music is more efficient than words when it comes to abstract concepts, such as emotions. Therefore, Noh is mainly expressed through visualized explicit or metaphorical expressions; in other words, there is very little dialogue. Performers base their performances on dance, with masks, costumes, music, and other props. An understanding of its cultural elements is required to appreciate the aesthetic of Noh.

Roles: In the past, all performers were male. Female performers were allowed to perform Noh from 1940.

Shite: the leading character 

Shitetsure: the companion of Shite

Waki: the counterpart or foil of Shite

Wakisure: the companion of Waki

Hayashi: an instrumentalist

Koken: stage crew

Jiutai: chorus

Masks: The mask is one of the most important elements of Noh, representing the personality of the character played by the actor. Currently, there are two hundred different kinds of masks based on sixty basic types. The most common types are:

Okina men: Old man masks. It is only used for a genre called “Okina,” which is performed on New Year's Day or special occasions.

Jo men: Elders masks. It is worn by the leading actors, representing incarnate spirits.

Otoko men: Man masks. Depending on social classes, there are many subtypes of it.

Onna men: Woman masks. Depending on age, there are many subtypes of it.

Kishin men: Demon masks. They look rough and wild. They can be used to represent demons, barbarians, and goblins.

Onryo men: Ghost and spirit masks. They are used to depict the dead incarnating spirits, which are revengeful against the world.

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