What is Noh? Complete Guide to Noh Theater


What is Noh? Complete Guide to Noh Theater

by Brooke Larsen | ART

Noh is one of the most ancient living forms of theater in the world, captivating audiences and for almost a thousand years. Even if you’ve never been to see a noh play, you will probably have caught glimpses of wooden masks, or heard snippets of shamisen tunes.

These all raise more questions than they answer though, so we’re here to help. We’ll answer all your questions about noh theater. Read on to learn more about Japan’s oldest surviving style of performance art.


1. What is Noh, and What Does Noh Mean?

Noh (能) comes from a Japanese word meaning talent or skill. Advanced performance and technical abilities are necessary for each show, which involves a complex combination of acting, dance, music, and other abilities. Modern-day players also require proficiency in the language of the original scripts, an ancient version of Japanese

© Kasuga Shrine / Creative Commons

Instead of playing characters, Noh actors act more as storytellers who narrate the play. The performers may dress up as specific personalities, but their gestures convey a tale rather than fully enact one. Slow, minimal movements and elaborate masks and costumes represent actions and feelings instead of intense action or detailed dialogue.

There has long been a strong emphasis on tradition over innovation in the community. This mindset has helped noh performances remain virtually unchanged throughout the centuries.


2. How Old is Noh Theater?

© Onnamen Noh Mask, 18th Century, Fukuoka City Museum

Japanese noh drama was inspired by a form of performance art that was brought to the country from China in the 8th century. Called sangaku in Japanese, it resembled a modern-day circus, featuring acrobatics, comedic skits, and dancing. Short comedic plays called sarugaku and musical ceremonies called dengaku, both of which entwined movement and rhythm with dramatic performances, developed from this artform.

© Matsuno Sofu, May - Twelve Months, 1956

Noh as we know it came to be in the 14th century. This form of dramatic musical theater was pioneered by Kan’ami Kiyotsugu (1333-1384) and his son Zeami (1363-1443), it quickly caught on at the Imperial Court. Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, Japan’s shogun (ruler) at the time, witnessed Kan’ami perform his unique version of sarugaku. Kan’ami was a skilled and versatile actor of the day; though physically large, he could portray delicate women and strong men with equal skill. The shogun was so impressed with Kan’ami and his young son’s musical and dramatic talents that he immediately became a patron. Zeami was trained in the arts at court and Kan’ami continued his successful performances, which came to be called noh. Zeami continued the traditional after his father’s death, perfecting the tradition that persists today.

Atsuita Noh Costume, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection, Museum of Fine Arts

From the 1600s, innovative and avant-garde performance arts, soared in popularity with the lower and middle classes such as Kabuki and Bunraku. Noh, however, refused to make any concessions to competition, and resolved to maintain its high-class status and authenticity. It continued to be devoutly supported by rulers and aristocrats, as well as shrines and temples, all the way through the Edo period (1603-1868).

If you’re not sure about the difference between Noh and Kabuki, take a look at What is Kabuki? Essential Guide to Japanese Kabuki Theater.


3. How Has Noh Survived to the Present Day?

Noh endured a financial crisis with the collapse of the shogunate at the end of the 19th century.  Many performers retired and venues closed due to loss of funding. Those remaining were finally forced to appeal to the general public, so noh gradually became available to a wider audience.

Following the second world war, foreigners visiting Japan became curious about noh. Many travelers and diplomats fell in love with the art. They patronized performances which helped it prosper once again.

In 1957, the Japanese government named noh an Intangible Cultural Property and in 2008 it was added to the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. These actions cemented its immortal status as an enduring and influential Japanese art.

Check out the Noh video above, which was shortlisted by National Geographic in their short film selection.


4. What Are Noh Plays About?

Hanakago Noh Play by Tsukioka Gyokusei, 1938

A typical noh play is short and features little dialogue: movement and music are more important to telling the story. Stories come from classical literature and depict both true and legendary events, often featuring mythical beings. The Tale of Genji, the world’s first fictional novel about a man torn between imperial and common life, and The Tale of the Heike, an account of an epic twelfth-century war, are two popular sources. The settings tend to be between the 12th and 16th centuries, the period during which noh was formulated and perfected. Only occasionally are new Noh plays written and performed.


5. How Long Does a Noh Performance Last?

Historically, noh plays were performed on auspicious occasions. A single performance would include up to five noh plays in a row with kyogen in between. Kyogen are comedic shorts directly derived from sangaku (see How old is noh theater above). Plays often began with an okina, a holy invocation of peace and prosperity through dance. All this meant that a visit to the noh theater used to require an entire day.

These days noone has that much time to spare! Noh performances typically include two to three plays instead of five, and only one or two kyogen. Plays are performed all year, not just on holidays, and may or may not include an opening okina. If you’re going to see a performance, you should expect it to last about 2-3 hours.


6. How Are Noh Performances Structured?

As a complex artform requiring many elaborate elements and perfect timing, there are several set structures and themes in place to keep things consistent.

Noh plays can be divided into three types. Genzai Noh (present noh) features human characters and events unfolding in a linear timeline. Mugen Noh (fantasy noh), attributed to Zeami, involves supernatural worlds and beings. Time is often depicted as passing in a non-linear fashion, and the action may switch between multiple timeframes and include flashbacks. Ryokake Noh (mixed Noh) is a hybrid of the two. Usually the first act is Genzai Noh and the second, Mugen Noh.

Noh Play by Tsukioka Kogyo, 1900

There are also two distinct styles of performance. Geki Noh (dramatic noh) are plays based around the advancement of the plot and the narration of the action, while Furyu Noh (elegant noh) are largely dance pieces characterized by elaborate actions.

Finally, there are five key themes, which historically made up the five noh plays performed in a single day.

●      Kami mono (god plays) typically feature a deity in the lead role telling the mythical story of a shrine’s founding.

●      Shura mono (warrior plays) feature the protagonist appearing as the ghost of a samurai pleading for salvation. The drama culminates in a dramatic re-enactment of his death.

●      Katsura mono (wig plays) or onna mono (women plays) star a female character and feature elaborate songs and dances.

●      Miscellaneous plays which can include anything from kyoran mono (madness plays) in which the protagonist goes insane after the loss of a lover or child, to genzai mono (present day plays) which feature more “contemporary” or realistic stories.

●      Kiri Noh (final noh) or oni mono (demon plays) which act as the finale and feature monsters, goblins, or demons in the lead role.


7. Who Are the Characters in a Noh Play?

Noh Mask Expressions

Many players come together to create a single, fluid Noh performance including: 

●      shite: the main protagonist, or the leading role

●      shitetsure: the shite's companion

●      koken: stagehands, usually one to three people

●      jiutai: the chorus, usually comprising six to eight people

●      waki: the counterpart or foil of the shite

●      wakitsure: the companion of the waki

●      hayashi or hayashi-kata: the instrumentalists

 While performers were exclusively male in the past, women have been allowed to participate since the 1940s.


8. What Are the Key Elements of a Noh Performance?

© ichidoru / Creative Commons, Matsumoto Mask

Noh integrates a number of performance elements into each play. Like the types of themes and performers, these work together to create spectacular masterpieces.


Masks are one of the most essential components of a character and are so revered they have almost spiritual powers. They represent a character’s personality and emotions, the latter of which can be conveyed expertly with simple head motions. For instance, a mask may appear smiling when tilted upwards, but frowning when positioned downwards. Japanese noh masks are crafted by skilled artisans, many with a long family history in the business. Find out more in 10 Things You Might Not Know About Traditional Japanese Masks.


Nuihaku Noh Costume, the Met Museum

Termed noh shozoku, the kimono and other garb noh players wear are vibrantly colored and exquisitely embroidered. This elaborate style is a remnant of the days Noh was supported by wealthy patrons.

Strict rules passed down for generations determine a character’s costume. Those in the know can accurately tell the age, gender, occupation, and social status of any role just by looking at their dress. For example, the color of the eri (collar) represents a character’s nature and only young women wear red. There are several such noh costumes among these 9 Must-See Japanese Masterpieces of Kimono Design.


The music of noh is played by the hayashi. Made up of four instruments – the fue (flute), kotsuzumi (shoulder drum), otsuzumi (hip drum), and taiko (stick drum) – the hayashi set both the mood and pace for the show. The musicians combine drumming and their voices to create a rhythm for the performers. Each musician specializes in only one instrument throughout their career.


In a way, Japanese noh itself is a dance. Much of each character’s movements throughout a noh play is made up of rhythmic gestures conveying a story. Every character’s movements are to the beat made by the hayashi. The motions are generally slow and precise, though depending on the character or activity a high tempo sequence may occur.


Noh Chukei Fan, the Met Museum

Unlike Kabuki, intricate props, scenery and revolving platforms are not used on the noh stage. Rather, a modest type of prop called tsukurimono (literally made things) is favored. Hand-fashioned from material like bamboo, tsukurimono often consist only of a simple frame and are more symbolic than realistic. They often imply structures like boats, graves, homes, and wells. Fans are also a popular prop: find out more in 5 Things You Should Know About Traditional Japanese Fans.


9. Where to See a Noh Performance?

Venues include both modern theaters and historic shrines (Noh was historically sponsored by religious groups as well as aristocrats). Tickets range from ¥3,000 to ¥12,500 (about $25-110) depending on your seats and the duration of the performance. Some venues offer discounted tickets to watch a single act, ideal for those looking for a brief taste.

Where to See Noh in Tokyo

The National Noh Theater / 国立能楽堂 (Kokuritsu Noh Gakudo)

Address: 4-18-1 Sendagaya, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo (see map)

Website: ntj.jac.go.jp/nou

Hours: Open during performances. See the schedule here.


Cerulean Tower Noh Theater / セルリアンタワー能楽堂 (Seruriantawa Noh Gakudo)

Address: 1-26 Sakuragaokacho, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo (see map)

Website: ceruleantower-noh.com

Hours: Open during performances. See the schedule here.


Where to See Noh in Osaka?

Yamamoto Noh Theater / 山本能楽堂 (Yamamoto Noh Gakudo)

Address: 1-3-6 Tokuicho, Chuo-ku, Osaka (see map)

Website: noh-theater.com

Hours: Open during performances. See the schedule here.


Where to See Noh in Kyoto

Kyoto Kanze Noh Theater / 京都観世会館 (Kyoto Kanze Kaidan)

Address: 44 Okazaki Enshojicho, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto (see map)

Website: kyoto-kanze.jp

Hours: Open during performances. See the schedule here.


Where to See Noh in Nagoya

Nagoya Noh Theater /名古屋能楽堂 (Nagoya Nogakudo)

Address: 1-1-1 Sannomaru, Naka-ku, Nagoya, Aichi (see map)

Website: bunka758.or.jp

Hours: Open during performances. See the schedule here.

September 6, 2019 | Art