Noh Drama

Noh drama is the oldest surviving form of Japanese theater. It combines music, dance, and acting to communicate Buddhist themes. Often the plot of a Noh play recreates famous scenes from well-known works of Japanese literature such as The Tale of Genji or The Tale of the Heike. The typical Noh play is not a dramatic reenactment of an event but its retelling.

An Introduction to Noh

Every culture in the world has its own theater. In Japan one of the most ancient forms of theater is Noh. The Noh theater found its form in the fourteenth century and continues in much the same form, with many of the same plays, in present day Japan. A Noh play portrays one all-encompassing emotion dominating the main character, the shite (she-tay). Whether jealousy, rage, or sorrow, all music, gesture, dance, and recitation are used to build the emotion to its final climax at the close of the play. Often the plays depict the return of a historical personage, in spirit— or "ghostly"— form, to the site of a significant event in his or her life. A warrior might return to the battle field, or young woman to the scene of a love affair. According to Buddhism of the fourteenth century, a person could not find spiritual release even after death if he still possessed a strong emotion or desire. To exorcise this emotion, the warrior might appear in his armor and recreate the battle in a dance. The dance would reveal his humiliation at suffering defeat.

Noh plays are extremely intense. In order to express something so abstract as an emotion, words are often inadequate. As the play progresses, then, dance and poetry are used to express the tortured heart. Other elements which contribute to an intensification of the mood are the bare simplicity of the stage which allows no distraction from the main character, and the gorgeous costumes of the main character himself. The stylized movements also help to focus the energy on the emotion rather than on the individual personalities. In Noh as in classical ballet, every movement is choreographed and often symbolic. There is no individual interpretation.

Aside from the main character there are one or sometimes two secondary parts, the waki. Usually they are priests attired in long dark robes. Like the audience, the secondary character is really there only to observe the tragedy enacted by the main character. Usually a play opens with the priest or other secondary character's entrance. He describes the scene which he wants the audience to imagine. The scenes are all actual spots in Japan. The main character may then enter disguised as a local person. The local person reveals to the secondary character the significance of the site. He then exits. He returns dressed as his true self with a mask and embroidered robes. From the time of his return to the stage, the secondary character generally remains seated to one side.

Masks are very important in the Noh and are worn only by the main character. The mask helps to raise the action out of the ordinary, to freeze it in time. For the Noh actor the mask of a particular character has almost a magic power. Before putting it on he will look at it until he feels the emotion absorbed within himself. When he puts on the mask, his individuality recedes and he is nothing but the emotion to be depicted.

A chorus sits to the side of the stage. The chorus often echoes the words of the characters, but it may also speak for them. Thus in a dialogue between the main character and secondary characters, the chorus may say the lines of either of them. This is of course according to the script and not improvised. Nothing on the Noh stage is improvised. The use of the chorus to recite the actors' lines make it seem as though the lines belong to no one: The actors are there but the emotion is not under anyone's control. It floats between actors and chorus and is further picked up by a sudden drum beat or drawn out by the flute.

There are usually four musicians who sit to the rear of the stage. Three play Japanese drums and one plays a flute made from bamboo. The drums give a very hollow thud while the flute has an eerie whistling sound. This eerie whisper is what draws the first actor out onto the stage and creates the other-worldly feeling necessary to Noh.

Suggested Noh Plays for Reading

A translation of the play Atsumori, based on the death of Atsumori as told in the medieval epic The Tale of the Heike, can be found in Donald Keene, Anthology of Japanese Literature from the Earliest Era to the Mid-Nineteenth Century (New York: Grove Press, 1955), 286-293.

In addition, the play Sotoba Komachi appears on pages 264-270 of Keene's Anthology. This play is about a famous poet from the Heian Period named Ono no Komachi. She was renowned for her beauty as well as her talent, and used it on occasion to torment her suitors. In the play, she is possessed by the angry spirit of a lover who died before completing an ordeal Komachi** set for him — to visit her house for one hundred consecutive nights without once being admitted. As you read, keep in mind that at first Komachi appears not as a beautiful young woman but as an ugly old crone, and that in the end she speaks in the voice of her unsuccessful lover. Notice all the Buddhist ideas and references in the lines spoken by the priests and Komachi. The central idea is that no one can attain enlightenment, or relief from suffering, until he or she has broken all emotional ties with the people or things of worldly existence.

** In Japan, it is customary for very famous people to be referred to by their personal name — in this case Komachi — and not their surname. Remember that the personal name follows the surname in Japanese word order; the protagonist's surname, then, is Ono. Sotoba — from the play's title — means stupa or grave marker.

Student Exercise

  • Think up possible plots for Noh plays, using contemporary events. For example, how would you construct a Noh play about Princess Diana? Perhaps the secondary character would be a young boy or girl who is visiting England. This character might visit Buckingham Palace and be approached by an old woman sweeping the grounds. The old woman tells him or her about the terrible tragedy of the beautiful princess who died in a car accident. Then the youth falls asleep and suddenly awakens to find the old groundskeeper transformed into Princess Diana. The princess would describe how sad she feels to have left her country and her two sons for the other world. The dominant emotion would be sadness and regret, which she would express in a ritual dance. The story of Princess Diana is only one of the possible scenarios you could give a modern Noh play. You may be able to find newspaper articles which quote speeches you could incorporate into your play. Remember that you must identify the emotion that has entrapped the person. Perhaps you could paint Noh masks on cardboard and use them to perform the play for your class.

  • The Noh play uses poetry, dance, music, and masks in order to convey emotions so intense that they cannot be described otherwise. There are times in everyone's life when words simply cannot convey one's feelings. Think of times in your life when you have had such feelings — especially emotions like jealousy, regret, or rage — which figure so prominently in Noh drama. What did you do? Can you express the feeling you had in a dance or song? The song may be one you have heard on the radio but which means something special when you sing it.