Introduction to Noh (Nogaku) Theater
What is Noh(Nogaku)?
Noh is a traditional form of Japanese entertainment. It is the oldest dramatic performance in existence that continues to be performed in it's original form.
History of Noh (Nogaku)
Noh originated from several traditional cultures about 700 years ago: Sarugaku, Dengaku, Imayou, Kusemai and Shoumyou. It is influenced most by Dengaku. Dengaku is a ceremony, similar to a festival, for giving thanks for an abundant harvest. Sarugaku is also influenced by Dengaku, which results in a more dramatic performance.
Who is Ze-ami?
In the 14th Century, Kan-ami and Ze-ami, father and son, wrote more artistic plays. They composed many Noh plays of historic value. This is especially true of Ze-ami, who had the backing of the 3rd Shogun Yoshimitsu Ashikaga, in the Muromachi period. He lived in the Shogun's house and served him. While doing so, he experienced and learned about the rich emotions of Japanese high society. As a result, his plays became more elegant. Noh plays were more profound and mysterious in those days, The Japanese call it "the beauty of Yugen."
About Noh (Nogaku) play
A Noh play consists of 4 parts: the Shite, Waki, Kyogen and Hayashi. The Shite is the main actor and plays the Hero or Heroine. The Waki is the secondary actor who plays opposite the Shite. The Kyogen can either be a commentator or a third actor in the story, depending upon how the play was written.
The Hayashi is similar to an orchestra, consisting of four instruments: the Fue, Ko-tuzumi, Oo-tuzumi and Taiko. The Fue is a transverse flute. The Ko-tuzumi is a small shoulder drum. The Oo-tuzumi is a large drum played on one's knee. The Taiko is a drum played with sticks. Depending upon the play, the Taiko is sometimes not used. There is also a background chorus consisting of 8 or 10 people belonging to the Shite-kata. Kata means part. The Shite and Chorus are played by the same group of actors. Each actor has their own specialty.
Do you know what the Hina-ninngyo(Hina-doll) is? Hina-matsuri is a traditional Japanese festival for girls on March 3rd. Hina dolls are decorated and placed on terraced platforms. It portrays the wedding ceremony. Five boy dolls are decorated with each instrument and placed on the 3rd platform. This is called Gonnin-bayashi. As you may have guessed. Yes, the Gonnin-bayashi is the orchestra of Noh music: 4 instruments and 1 chorus.
The main actor plays with mask except some numbers. While the actor is singing or talking, and dancing, the story unfolds itself. There are about 250 stories, and in practice, 200 numbers is played at present.
About the story
Noh plays are divided into five categories, according to the character of the hero or heroine.
The first category is called Waki-noh. These are plays about a god or have a general celebratory theme. The Shite is always a god or a messenger of a god.
The second category is called Shura-mono. These plays are about old Japanese warriors in which the Shite is a Samurai from the stories of Heike or Genpei-Gassen.
The third category is called Katsura-mono. These plays are about beautiful women. Katsura-mono plays are considered to be the most Noh-like. That is, they are most representative of the essence of Noh theatre. These plays are the most beautiful and elegant in every aspect. They are also very mysterious. It is the world of Uugen.
The fourth category is called Kyojo-mono. Plays in this category are about a variety of subjects, but the most popular plays are about mad or crazy women. For example, the Shite is a mother crazed with grief over the loss of her child.
The fifth category is called Kichiku-mono or Kiri-Noh. These plays are about demons or similar monsters. The most popular plays are those that have Hannya, which is the mask of an angry woman. The mask looks like a demon. The other plays are about monsters of such creatures as spiders and foxes and other animals. These plays have a strong rhythm and fast tempo. They are powerful and strongly impact the audience.
In the Edo period, Noh belonged to the Shogunate. The Shogunate held 5 Noh plays in one day; one play from each of the five categories. Incidentally, Hideyoshi Toyotomi, who was the owner of Osaka castle, liked Noh plays very much, He had Noh plays performed very often. He also composed many Noh plays about himself including Akechi-uchi
About the Theatre
Now let's look at the structure of a Noh theatre. It is quite different from that of ordinary theatres. There is a picture of a pine tree on the back wall. The reason for this is that Noh plays were originally performed outdoors with the ground itself as a stage.
The main stage is almost a perfect square. There is a roofed passageway, which is called Hashi-gakari, which connects the main stage to the backstage. The significance of the passageway is very special. Symbolically, the passageway connects the real world to the spiritual world. The seating area for the audience is different from regular theatres. The audience sits in front of and to one side of the main stage. The main stage is not level. It slopes slightly downward. The Hashi-gakari also has a slight slope. The reason for this is to provide the audience a better perspective of the play. The back wall and the ceiling above the Hayashi-za are built in a way to enhance the sound of the play. The ceiling is angled to deflect the sound towards the audience. They serve to enhance the foot stomp sounds on the stage. Using water-filled vases is a very interesting way to amplify sound.
Shozoku is the name of the costumes worn by the Noh actors. Because they were owned by the nobility of that time period, they were well-made and very detailed. As a result, the beauty of the Shozoku did not change whether viewed from a distance or close up.
These days, the Takigi-Noh play is performed every summer in the west plaza of the Osaka Castle Park. This is very interesting, because the same performance is played in the same place under the same sky, even after 400 years. Needless to say, the scenery has changed dramatically since then.
Last of all, here are some points to help you appreciate a Noh play. For your first play, we recommend you to choose a story that is easily understandable. Before going to the performance, it is good to find out about the story and the characters of the play. If possible, find a storybook called Utaibon. This book will give you information about the story of the play, where it takes place, the season in which it takes place and the characters. The most important things for appreciating a Noh play are your imagination and your emotions. These help you understand the actor's feelings.