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Noh is a form of age-cold theater that originated in Japan. The theatre style evolved into the one we know today as it was passed down through the centuries and interacted with various styles. The 14th century saw changes to the Noh theater form brought about by encounters with Chinese culture. The traditional Japanese theatrical style (known as Dengaku) and the Chinese theater style (known as Sarugaku) came together to create the Noh theater culture. The performing groups in the Noh theatre culture used the shrines and temples, and their shows resembled sermons that had been altered for entertainment (Gillespie 55). The performers also donned traditional costumes, masks and musical instruments to mimic the sermon environment desired for the theatre style. Notable actors of the Noh theatre style include Kannami and Zeami (Kannami’s son). They were the epitome of the Noh theatre style in the 14th century (Noh, Crystallised Aesthetics 8). Their performance for high-class guests made them receive sponsorships for their plays. With such funding and popularization, they developed many plays which are still performed today. Classical examples of such plays include Takasago and The Well Curb (also referred to as Izutsu). The Noh theatre styles transmit ideas relating to Buddhist way of life coupled with aristocracy. Other aspects covered by this theatre style include the animistic Shinto philosophy.
The Noh theatre style was such an exquisite style such that only certain social castes could access in traditional Asian community setup. The common public was banned from learning the dance styles and music played during the performance of the Noh. It was much associated with the aristocracy. With the fall of the aristocracy coupled with the government subsidies, the general public got more access to the theatre style. They have since liked it more and would pass it down to several generations. Current support for preservation of Asian culture, and the general public appeal has propelled the Noh theatre style in the modern times. The theatrical acts are performed indoors, though the environment (stage) still retains its originality, for example, the outdoor design is still integrated in modern performances. The outdoor design includes pebbles and some pine trees to mimic the natural setting of the theatre style. Traditionally, the theatre style has three performing artists: the principal actor (usually referred to as Shi-te in Japanese culture), the companion (usually referred to as Tsure) and the secondary actor (usually referred to as Waki). The performance integrates traditional musical instruments like tsuzumi drum, shamisen and a chorus of 6-8 people.
The main actor determines the progress of the play. In order to display the character of the main actor, elaborate masks and costumes were worn by this actor. Usually, these masks and costumes mimicked closely the Buddhist costumes. The main actor was presumed as male. And wore at least five layers of clothing and a mask. Usually, the main character is the last person to enter the scene in the performing stage. The mask is usually removed during the performance to reveal his real identity. Props can be integrated to enhance the setting or character, for example, folding fans can be integrated to symbolize certain objects or express emotions. There exist about 240 Noh plays which are grouped according to the Shi-te (the main character). The five main groupings include the God plays (Waki Noh), Warrior plays (Shura Mono), Wig plays (Katsura Mono), Miscellaneous plays (Zatsu Mono) and Closing plays (Kiri No) (Bouwers 26). The warrior plays involve the major character being the samurai (a warrior). The warrior finds no peace even after death due to his past misdeeds. The absence of peace is considered as a consequence of Karma, a belief so highly regarded amongst the Buddhists. According to the karmic principle, whatever goes around comes around too. It is only after prayers by people outside his realm that he is able to get final peace. In the wig plays, the Shi-te takes up the role of a woman, while in the closing plays he takes the role of a demonic form. In this case, we will consider the God plays (Waki Noh). Considering the originality of the words and sounds used in the play, the classical prose and poetry of the Noh is beyond comprehension of most Japanese audiences. However, the general public have a general perception of the idea expressed in the play. Therefore, enhancing the theatre experience is the main issue of most Asian theatre companies.
A significant promoter of the Noh theatre style is the Ma-Yi Theatre Company. It is an Asian theatre company enshrined in developing Asian theatrics. It has spread its wings to include the American market. It offers incubation to Asian artistic pieces and playwrights.
In the Waki Noh, the main character (Shi-te) takes the form of a deity to tell a story of a shrine. Ancient Buddhists believe in the use of shrines to communicate with the deity. The shrines are considered the holiest places. In the play, the main character praises a particular God. it is believed that praising a particular god could open ways for blessings, or deter anger vented upon humans by the gods. In the beginning of the play, the deity is disguised in a human form. It is in the second part that the deity reveals their true self.
The structure of the play follows jo-ha-kyu, an aesthetic principle. The principle is an age-old tradition where the introduction of the play begins with a slow tempo. In this section, the secondary character (Waki) and the main character (Shi-te) are introduced separately (Shimazaki 212). The main objective of the play is made clear at this stage. The audience has to prepare for the events leading to the fulfillment of the play’s objective. Ha represents the middle part of the play where there is a twist in events. It is often in this part that the real self of the characters is revealed. The tempo of the play changes to faster rate as the play climaxes. The climax is marked by a dance style referred to as mai as the main character (Shi-te) reminisces his past. Kyu represents the concluding sections of the play. Shi-te returns in this section as the unfolding story ends. Many Noh plays are based on Buddhist principles, for example, how an individual has to pay for his wrong doings before he/she transitions to the ‘other’ world.
The plays were meant for the elite people in the society. Therefore, the audience was majorly formal. During the performance of the play, the audience is expected to quietly listen. The stage is set in accordance to the traditional outdoor setting. To enhance the theatric experience, the lights are kept on to make the audience and the actors feel connected by sharing the same platform.
Method of Acting
The musicals were refined from old traditions. Major instruments include the flute and the drums. The drums are of different types, depending on the tempo set in the play. In the introduction, a slow music is to be integrated to set the slow tempo of the play. The flute produces long melodious tunes which often camouflage into the background. The actor expresses the words in this stage, as he states the objective of the play. For the dramatic twist, the drum beats set in building up the tempo of the play. It is in this stage that the main actor. The choir set in, integrated with the voice of the actors. Usually, the actor sings in low tunes, as the choir resonate the chorus sections of the songs. The songs are derived from the ancient Buddhist chants.
Regarding the body posture of the actors, they keep their knees bent in the advent of the play. They grow in stature, as the knee straightens as the play continues. The climax of the play mark the straightening of the actor. The actor springs up into the upright position to mark the twist in the play. The dance sessions are minimal and are limited to swinging movements around the dais.
Facial expressions are disregarded, thereby necessitating the use of the masks. The minimalistic dance nature can be attributed to the use of the masks. All the characters wear the masks, which are designed considering the character to be displayed by the given actor. The performers also donned traditional costumes, masks and musical instruments to mimic the sermon environment desired for the theatre style (Suzuki 45). The costumes included artistic forms. They had symbolic patterns which the audience could utilize to know the contents of the play. The specific forms of the costumes included folding trousers for the male characters and colorful robes for the female characters.
The main actor was presumed as male. And wore at least five layers of clothing and a mask. Usually, the main character is the last person to enter the scene in the performing stage. The mask is usually removed during the performance to reveal his real identity. Props can be integrated to enhance the setting or character, for example, folding fans can be integrated to symbolize certain objects or express emotions (Gillespie 98). There exist about 240 Noh plays which are grouped according to the Shi-te (the main character). In this case, we will consider the God plays (Waki Noh). Considering the originality of the words and sounds used in the play, the classical prose and poetry of the Noh is beyond comprehension of most Japanese audiences. One has to have the advanced knowledge in Chinese and Japanese culture to clearly understand the contents of the play. However, a summary is usually available to the audience before the start of the play, to ensure they get to grasp some of the parts of the play. Even the vocabulary used is quite complicated. The modern Japanese language have left out the use of this words. However, native Japanese speakers are at better chance of deciphering the meaning of the words presented in the play as compared to a foreign Japanese learner or national.
Noh is quite an experience for every playwright. The Asian culture is full with twists and rich content. Noh theatre style underwent modifications in the 14th century through interactions with the Chinese culture. The Chinese theatre style, known as Sarugaku, combined with the original Japanese theatre style (known as Dengaku) to give birth to the inherent Noh theatre culture. In the Noh theatre culture, the performing groups utilized the shrines and temples, and their performances resembled closely sermons modified for entertainment. The performers also donned traditional costumes, masks and musical instruments to mimic the sermon environment desired for the theatre style. Notable actors of the Noh theatre style include Kannami and Zeami (Kannami’s son). Its rich history, spanning from the religious beliefs and social castes make a dramatic endeavor for any enthusiasts of Asian culture. The Ma-Yi Theatre Company does a great deal promoting the Noh culture in the western countries. Even with the boring tunes at the centre stage of the play, the theatrical experience and the tradition expressed through these plays make it an exquisite piece for modern audience. Everyone identifies himself/herself with culture, and the Asian people are quite conservationists with regard to culture. They hold the traditional art pieces with high esteem, and would see the Noh plays over and over. Ma-Yi Theatre Company has to add more creativity with regard to the presentation of the plays. The story line and the poetics might not change much, but the presentation of the Noh plays can be adjusted to suit different settings.
Bouwers, Fabion. Japanese Theatre. Tuttle Publishing Company, 2013.
Gillespie, John. "Modern Japanese Theatre." Routledge Handbook of Asian Theatre (2016): 290.
"Noh, Crystallised Aesthetics." 2010. .
Shimazaki, Chifumi. Warrior Ghost Plays from the Japanese Noh Theatre. Cornell University , 2017.
Suzuki, Tadashi. Culture is the Body. SCOTT, 2008.
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