Written by Ramona Taranu
Noh Theater - Stories About How To Stay Human In Times Of War
Noh theater is one of Japan's classical performing arts, boasting a history of seven centuries and famous for being extremely refined and elegant. We introduce the features of this art and an occasion to watch a Noh performance in Tokyo!
Among Japan's classical performing arts, Noh theater boasts the longest tradition, having reached an accomplished form around 650 years ago. Noh performances are being held regularly everywhere in Japan and the art has many fans nowadays.
Let us introduce to you some of the features that make Noh one of Japan's treasured traditions. It's our hope that you'll take the next occasion to experience Noh for yourself when visiting Japan!
The Features of Noh Theater
Noh "Lady Aoi" © Yoshihiro Maejima
You can recognize Noh theater right away by its specific masks. It's the only traditional Japanese performing art in which the actor playing the leading role wears a mask.
There are several types of masks depending on the role: deities, women, men, demons, fantastical creatures etc. The use of masks in Noh originates in the sacred dances specific to the Shinto tradition, in which shrine priests used masks to impersonate gods.
Noh is itself a performing art centered on dance. The actor in the leading role (called shite) performs a formalized dance consisting of a sequence of movements that have been handed down through practice from master to disciple for generations.
Noh "Katsuragi" © Yoshihiro Maejima
The repertory of Noh theater consists at present of approximately 250 plays. (There used to be many more in the Edo Period (1603 - 1968), but only the very popular ones have made into the modern times.)
Noh plays are usually based on legends and stories that were common knowledge at the time when this art was born, namely the Muromachi Period (1336 - 1573). At that time in Japanese history, the warrior class was at the rule and Noh was able to develop because it received the support of the ruling class. That is to say, Noh theater reflects the ideals and dreams of the warrior class. Human values such as valiance, integrity, faithfulness, dignity or elegant beauty which were treasured by the warriors stand at the core of Noh.
Not by chance, the time when the most Noh plays were created coincides with the so-called “Warring States Period” (Sengoku jidai) which started in 1467 and lasted for about one century and a half. It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that, during those times of constant military conflict, Noh and other highly aesthetic arts such as tea ceremony or ikebana (flower arrangement) were practiced as a way for the warriors to keep their humanity, in an attempt to compensate for the social and political chaos they were living in.
A Brief History of Noh Theater
1. The Beginnings of Noh as a Stage art
Noh Aoi no Ue ("Lady Aoi") © Yoshihiro Maejima
At the origin of Noh theater stand folk performances that were related to shrine and temple festivals in the 12th - 13th century Japan. In the 14th century, the large temples and shrines around Kyoto and Nara used to call professional actor troupes to perform at their festivals.
One of these troupes, Kanze, started to receive the support of the shogun of the time, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358 - 1408), who enjoyed the art of its lead actors. This was the beginning of the patronage relationship between the warrior class and Noh actors, which was to last until the rule of the warrior class ended at the end of the Edo period (1603 - 1868).
It was toward the end of the 14th century when the leader of the Kanze school, Zeami (1363 - 1443), began his activity as an actor, playwright and theorist of Noh theater. Zeami created a great number of Noh plays (most of which still are in the Noh repertory at present). He also left several treatises on the art of Noh, written as guidebooks for his successors. Zeami's work was decisive for what Noh was to become in the following centuries.
2. Noh in the Edo Period (1603 - 1868)
After a century and a half of internal conflicts, the Edo Period (1603 - 1868) brought in a time of peace, after the Tokugawa shogunate united the country under its rule. For Noh, this was a time of flourishing. In addition to the professional Noh actors, amateur performers from the warrior class were also active. Hundreds of new Noh plays were created and it was during this time that the performance style was formalized and brought close to the form we can still see today.
3. Noh in Modern Times
At the beginning of the Meiji Period (1868 - 1912), the warrior class was abolished and Japan began to modernize. For Noh, this was a period of crisis, as it had lost its patrons. Although some professional actors were still active, a great part of the repertory and of the tradition was lost.
Noh encountered a revival only after WWII when Zeami's treatises were discovered. His theories on the art of Noh were found to be so consistent and inspiring that they brought a breath of fresh air in the practice of Noh. At present, Noh has many fans both in and outside of Japan, being practiced by thousands of professional actors and amateurs.
Places Where You Can Watch Noh
Noh requires a stage with specific structural features. The facilities housing such stages are called nohgakudo (Noh theaters). In the large cities of Japan, there are several Noh theaters and even the small town have at least one.
In Tokyo, you can go watch Noh performances at the National Noh Theater located in Sendagaya, at the Kanze Noh Theater in Ginza, the Hosho Noh Theater in Suidobashi, and several other locations. However, with the exception of the National Noh Theater which offers English subtitles for some of the performances, it will be difficult to find Noh performances with programs and explanations in English.
It is for this reason that we would like to recommend A FLOWER, a Noh performance provided with multilingual translation that will be held on July 23rd, 2018, at the Yarai Noh Theater in Kagurazaka, Tokyo.
Watch a Noh Play with Explanations in English!
Noh "Hagoromo" © Yoshihiro Maejima
A FLOWER is a unique project dedicated to introducing Noh theater to international visitors to Japan. The members of the audience will be able to follow the performance with the help of NOH-Tab, an application that offers the synopsis of the play in English, French and Chinese.
The program consists of two plays: the Noh Hagoromo ("The Celestial Feather Robe") and the Kyogen play Bo-shibari ("Tied to a Stick"), which are both very famous plays from the classical repertory. For further details on this performance, please refer to our article: A FLOWER - Enjoy A Noh Theater In Tokyo! English Synopsis Available
Enjoy a short preview of A FLOWER by watching this video:
If you would like to watch this unique performance, you can reserve your tickets in English HERE or in Japanese HERE. MATCHA's readers receive an exclusive discount on the B seat tickets! Priced at 7000 yen, these tickets can be purchased by MATCHA's readers for only 5000 yen!
Arrive at the venue a little earlier and you can take photos of and together with the performers (17:45 - 18:30). Moreover, you can enjoy local drinks and snacks, and even purchase Noh-related souvenirs.
All the members of the audience will receive commemorative photos of the Noh performance as a gift.
We hope you will enjoy Noh theater and would love to hear your impressions of it!
|Address||Tokyo, Shinjuku, Yarai-cho 60|
|Accepted Credit Cards||Not Available|
|Nearest station||Kagurazaka Station (Tokyo Metro Tozai Line)|
|Access||2-minute walk from Kagurazaka Station's Exit 2 (Yarai Exit)|
In cooperation with The Global Nohgaku Company