The Charm of Noh: Japan’s Oldest Traditional Performing Art

  • In Japan, there are various types of traditional performing arts which you may have read about or come across during your trips there. Have you ever wanted to know more about the traditional performing arts of Japan? Read on to find out more about Noh and discover its charm for yourself during your next trip to Japan!

    The roots of Noh (能)


    The word Noh (能) means craft or talent in performing arts and is sometimes used alone or paired with the word gaku to form the term Nogaku (能楽). Noh used to be called Sarugaku (猿樂) in the Heian era until the Edo era and also included Kyougen (狂言), a comedic form of Sarugaku. Although there is no exact evidence as to how Noh was created, one theory was that another art form named Sangaku (散楽) was brought in from China to Japan in the 8th century which subsequently led to Noh’s early development. Another school of thought was that Noh originated from the outcasts during the Muromachi period who tried to elevate their social status by catering to the shogunate’s love for this art form. During this era, Kanami Kiyotsugu (観阿弥清次). a Japanese Noh actor, author and musician and his son Zeami Motokiyo (世阿弥元清) were credited for transforming Noh to its format of today.

    The elements and concepts in a Noh performance

    A Noh performance typically consists of five Noh plays with comedic Kyougen plays in between while an abbreviated program would have two Noh plays and one Kyougen play only. A formal full-length lineup will begin with the Okina (翁 – usually performed during New Year and special occasions) and continue with God Noh (脇能 waki noh – featuring gods), Warrior Noh (修羅能 shura noh – featuring spirits of warriors after their deaths), Woman Noh (鬘物 kazura mono – featuring women) , Miscellaneous Noh (雑能 zatsu noh) and wrap up with Ending Noh (切能 kiri noh – featuring demons or supernatural creatures). It was said that this order was determined by the Tokugawa shogunate so as to create a balanced program for the entire day.

    There is a key concept of Jo-ha-kyu (序破急) which specifies how each element in a Noh performance is structured. Jo means beginning, ha means breaking while kyu means rapid. In a Noh performance, the beginning segment would start at a slow tempo manifested by the word Jo while the second, third and fourth performances would go at a faster rate before ending at the kyu pace for the final piece.

    Types of Noh plays

    Noh plays can be broadly classified into three categories with the differences mainly in terms of time sequence and whether it involves supernatural characters:
    – Genzai Noh (現在能; present Noh) which features human characters and events happening sequentially in time
    – Mugen Noh (夢幻能; supernatural Noh) involving the supernatural world featuring gods and spirits in the shite (protagonist) role with the story alternating between the present and flashbacks
    – Ryokake Noh (両掛能; mixed Noh) a hybrid with the first act being Genzai Noh and the second act being Mugen Noh
    The majority of the 240 or so Noh plays still performed today were written during the end of the Muromachi era.

    Equipment used in Noh


    There is extensive use of masks, costumes and props in this performance which also involves dancing. There are five main categories of masks for different characters i.e. gods, old people, men, women and supernatural beings. Masks are typically made of hinoki (Japanese cypress) and facial features inherit characteristics of the customs during the Muromachi era when Noh was first performed.

    The most commonly used prop is the fan which is carried by all performers regardless of their roles. Other than this, items such as walking sticks, calligraphy or painting scrolls, swords and musical instruments are also carried on stage by the characters.

    Layout of a Noh stage


    The Noh stage has an open concept without any curtains to obstruct the audience’s view even as actors enter or exit the stage. There is a roof that hangs over the stage regardless of whether it is indoors or outdoors and is said to be modeled after the worship pavilion in Shinto shrines. The stage is made of Japanese cypress with no decorations except for the green pine tree drawn on the kagami-ita (鏡板). Last but not least, the narrow bridge at the side of the stage used by actors to enter the stage and is named hashigakari (橋掛り) which means suspension bridge, signifies the connection of two worlds i.e. the human and spiritual worlds on the same level.


    So which is the best place to watch Noh from? There are three types of seats i.e. the Shoumen (正面), the Waki-Shoumen (脇正面) and Naka-Shoumen (中正面). The Shoumen, which means directly facing, is right before the stage and allows you to watch the play up close and costs the most. The Waki-Shoumen is located in front of the hashigakari where performers make their entrance and exit. Sometimes, there may be some scenes performed on this bridge which can be seen clearly by those sitting in front of it. However, the catch is that you get a slanted view of the stage where most of the action is happening. As for the Naka-Shoumen, it is sandwiched between the Shoumen and Waki-Shoumen. As the pillar on the front right corner of the stage is blocking the audience’s view of the entire stage, the tickets are of course the cheapest. Depending on your budget and preference, you can choose the seat which suits your needs best. At times, the Noh theatre you go to may have seats on the second floor. In such situations, the first floor’s seats are usually designated seating as specified on the tickets while the second floor will be free-seating and you are allowed to move around to a different seat during the intervals as long as it is not a full-house.

    The people who perform Noh

    Generally, there are four main categories of Noh performers: the shite (仕手/シテ), waki (脇 / ワキ), kyougen (狂言) and hayashi (囃子). Below are the brief descriptions for each of these roles as well as other performers and staff involved in Noh plays:
    Shite – the leading role in the plays
    Shitezure (仕手連れ / シテヅレ) – the shite’s companion in the play
    Waki – the counterpart of the shite, supporting role
    Wakizure (脇連れ / ワキヅレ) – the waki’s companion in the play
    Kyougen – performs the aikyougen (間狂言) which are interludes during plays
    Hayashi – the people who play the four instruments used in Noh i.e. flute, hip drum, shoulder drum and stick drum
    Kouken (後見) – stage hands; usually one to three people
    Jiutai (地謡) – the chorus, usually comprising of six to eight people
    A typical Noh play would involve the chorus, the orchestra and at least one shite actor and one waki actor.

    Etiquette while watching Noh


    During a Noh performance, the house lights are kept on and the audience only claps when the actors come onto the stage, while they are on the hashigakari and between the change of actors. There is no bowing by the actors and they do not return to the stage after leaving unless it’s the shite who leaves the stage briefly as part of the story.

    During the interval, tea, coffee and wagashi may be served in the lobby of the theatre. On special occasions, ceremonial sake called o-miki (お神酒) may be served at the end of the performance as it happens in Shinto rituals.

    How and where to watch a Noh play

    To catch a Noh play, you can head to public and private Noh theatres across Japan. The more prominent public theatres include National Noh Theatre in Tokyo, Nagoya Noh Theatre (Japanese only) and Osaka Noh Theatre (Japanese only). The Japan Arts Council also has a website which provides detailed information about Noh in English so you can read up further before you attend a Noh play in order to appreciate it better. As tickets are very sought-after, it is highly recommended that you order your tickets in advance via the telephone or online rather than attempt to buy same-day tickets at the theatre’s ticketing counter.

    Due to the fact that Noh is written in ancient Japanese language and there are no subtitles, it may be difficult for people to understand the story especially if they do not know the language well. Nonetheless, it will be worth checking out this traditional art which guarantees to be a treat for your senses!

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