Noh or No (Japanese: 能 Nō) is a major form of classical Japanese musical drama that has been performed since the 14th century. Together with the closely related kyogen farce, it evolved from various popular and aristocratic art forms, including Dengaku, Shirabyoshi, and Gagaku. Kan'ami and his son Zeami brought Noh to its present-day form during the Muromachi period. It would later form the foundation for other dramatic forms such as Kabuki. During the Meiji era, Noh and kyogen received official recognition as two of the three national forms of drama.
Noh is unique in its slow, spartan grace and its use of distinctive masks.
Noh is a chanted drama, and for that reason, some people have dubbed it Japanese opera. However, the singing in Noh involves a limited tonal range, with lengthy, repetitive passages in a narrow dynamic range. Clearly, melody is not at the center of Noh singing. Still, texts are poetic, relying heavily on the Japanese seven-five rhythm familiar to all who know the much-later haiku, with an economy of expression, and an abundance of allusion.
The Noh play takes place on a sparse stage made out of Japanese cypress. The stage is bare with the exception of the "kagami-ita," a painting of a pine-tree at the back of the stage. There are many explanations for this tree, one of the more common being that it symbolizes a means by which deities were said to descend to earth in Shinto ritual. Another unique feature of the stage is the "Hashigakari," the narrow bridge to the left of the stage that the principal actors use to enter the stage. This would later evolve into the Hanamichi in Kabuki.
In contrast to the unadorned stage, costumes are lavish. Many actors, especially those in the shite role, wear rich silk brocade s.
There are four major categories of Noh Actors, and eight major categories of roles in Noh:
- The Shitekata are the most common form of actor in Noh. They perform various roles, including:
- "Shite" (Primary actor)
- "Tsure" (Shite's companion)
- Jiutai (Chorus, usually 6-8 actors)
- "Koken" (stage assistant, usually 2-3 actors).
- The Wakikata perform the Waki role, a secondary role that is the counterpart of the Shite.
- The Kyogenkata perform the kyogen interludes during and between plays.
- The Hayashikata are the instrumentalists who play the four instruments used in Noh theater, the flute, hip-drum, the shoulder-drum, and the stick-drum.
A typical Noh play will involve all categories of actors and usually takes 30-120 minutes. Kyogen farces provide comic relief in the interludes. There are approximately 250 plays that are performed in the current repertoire. There are six categories of Noh plays, which are organized roughly by subject:
- Okina/Kamiuta: A unique play that combines dance with Shinto ritual. The oldest Noh play.
- 1st Category: God plays
- 2nd Category: Warrior plays
- 3rd Category: Woman plays
- 4th Category: Mad woman plays.
- 5th Category: Demon plays.
The Tale of the Heike, a medieval tale of the rise and fall of the Taira clan, originally sung by blind monks who accompanied themselves on the biwa, is an important source of material for Noh (and later dramatic forms), particularly warrior plays. Authors also drew on Nara and Heian period Japanese classics, and Chinese sources.
There are about 1500 professional Noh actors in Japan today, and the art form continues to thrive. The five extant schools of Noh acting are the Kanze (観世), Hosho (宝生), Komparu (金春), Kita (喜多), and Kongo (金剛) schools. Each school has a leading family known as Soh-ke, and the head of each family is entitled to create new plays or edit already existing songs. The society of Noh actors is quite feudalistic, and strictly protects the traditions passed down from their ancestors.
All Noh plays are spiritually based on an idea called 'Yugen', meaning subtle and profound spirit. Noh truly represents the Japanese culture of finding beauty in subtlety and formality.
Famous Noh Plays
- Aoi no uye ("Court Lady Aoi")
- Hagoromo ("The Feather Mantle")
- Matsukaze ("Pining Wind")
Masks in Noh Plays
The masks in Noh all have names.