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Japan Life!
Everything you need to know about Noh Theatre (Theater)
Everything you need to know about Noh Theatre (Theater)
Nogaku Theatre

Noh
(能), or Nogaku (能楽), which is a derivative of the words used for ‘Skill’ or ‘Talent’, is a form of theatrical art that was derived from dance and festival drama prevalent at shrines or temples in the late 12th and early 13th century. The art of Noh had become a distinctive form of theatrics by the 14th century and continually refined throughout the Edo period. During that time, Noh became an official ceremonial art that was issued regulations and governance to standardize it to emphasize tradition instead of innovation.  Currently there are five main troupes that continue to uphold these regulations and traditions even today as they perform.

The Four Forms of Classical Japanese Theatre
Noh being one of four distinctive forms of classical theatre alongside Kyogen, Kabuki, and Bunraku, is also the oldest form of the group and even thought to be the oldest existing form of theater in the world. Although Noh is a form of drama that is set to entertain instead of inspire laughter, its cousin art Kyogen are often paired together. While they are very similar and considered to be the same they are in many ways completely opposite in their presentation.

Story Presentation
In Noh the story is told in a monotonous manner with very little emotion, as if you were telling a story to friends or family. Many of the stories told by Noh are folktales or common stories of Japan that most people of the area would know already but the way it is performed in Noh is what brings people to see it.

On the other hand, Kyogen is told with much more laughter and dancing as a comedic or uplifting story. Noh makes heavy use of masks to portray their characters with few other props to speak other than the classic folding paper fan which can be used to symbolize many things depending on how it is handled, from a paper lantern to a sword. Kyogen on the other hand uses no such masks unless the actor is to portray a physical transformation of sorts, however, the props are generally the same being that Kyogen is generally much shorter then Noh.



The Story of the Masks
The masks and props of this traditional form of theater differ very little from performance to performance. The actors are to convey their role through their story telling more than the costume or prop; the skill of the actor themselves being weighed much more heavily than how they use any other object. The actor themselves however are usually to show no emotion in their voice.

Emotion in the show is often portrayed on the mask itself as either a change of mask or a simple change of lighting applied to the actor in the mask, weighing even more heavily on the ability to tell a story by the actor as they perform. There are only a handful of masks that are in use in any single troupe of performers. They are general and usually used to portray something simple along the lines of ‘Old man’, ‘Demon’, or ‘Young Girl’.

In most performances only the main character is to wear a mask to bring attention to them, however it is not unheard of for some important supporting roles to also wear masks. Along with the masks Noh is also known for its very extravagant and elaborate clothing. These articles of clothing are deliberately aggrandizing to set in contrast the stage in its bare décor and lack of props.




The Noh Program
The typical Noh program consists of five separate plays divided by three or four Kyogen, traditionally. However, today's Noh are more likely to consist of only two or three plays divided by one or two Kyogen. As previously mentioned, most Noh plays are commonly known stories to the Japanese people, these number in about 240 stories and are separated into 5 different categories.

The categories for these stories are numbered from one to five and are referred to by their number when talked about. The first category is Kami mono (神物), which features a story about a human in the first half of the show which later transitions to a deity in the second. Kami mono is often a story of a specific shrine or to praise a particular spirit. The category referred to as ‘two’ is Shura mono (修羅物).

In this distinction, the actor is often portrayed as a spirit only to be shown as a warrior in full battle gear in the second half to reenact the scene of said characters death. Third, we have Katsura mono (鬘物) or ‘Wig plays’ are the stories of women and are usually the shows with the most enthusiastic dances and songs in all of Noh. Next in the categorization at number four is for the miscellaneous shows. Among them being kyouran mono (狂乱物), onryou mono (怨霊物), and genzai mono (現在物).

These plays are used to show the current time and generally cannot quite fit into any other category. Last on the list, being number five is Kiri nou (切り能) or oni mono (鬼物). These plays are saved for last in the line-up as they are the most dramatic, showing the actor in the roles of a demon, monster, or other creature from Japanese folklore and is filled with bright colors and fast paced movement fitting of a finale.

The Stage
Just as well, the stage of the Noh performances are incredibly important. Despite being nearly bare and seemingly quite ordinary much like the rest of the performance, they are in fact very deliberate. A Noh stage is designed after many of the Shinto shrine's Kagura stages and crafted almost entirely from Hinoki (Japanese Cypress) wood. Traditionally, these stages are created outdoors with small roofs that cover just the stage.

Each pillar is named in accordance with the direction they are to represent in the current story unfolding on stage. Near the front, right pillar, known as the Waki-bashira, is where the supportive actor usually stands during the show. This role is known as Waki.

On the other side in the rear, left corner is where the Shite is placed throughout the performance, this pillar is known as the Shite-bashira. In the rear, right corner is the fue-bashira and is closest to the flutist. Finally, in the front left is the metsuke-bashira. This translates roughly to ‘Sighting pillar’ and is so-named because the Shite use this pillar for navigation when their vision is hindered with a mask or prop. The floors of this stage are highly polished like most revered Japanese buildings but the sheen on these floors is to allow the actors a gliding movement with their performances instead of esteemed appearances.

The only ornamentation of the stage is the backdrop which is a large painting of a large tree, said to be Pine. The significance of this tree is thought to be either a representation of a famous pine in Kasuga Shrine located in Nara or thought to be a symbol of the Noh’s artistic heritage which were often performed with a natural backdrop near an already existent forest or tree.



The Prominency of Noh Theatre
The traditional and entertaining form of theatrics known as Noh is still very prominent with over 1,500 people within the five troupes that still perform regularly, attracting young and old with their captivating stories. Whether on vacation or temporary residence, chances are anybody visiting will hear about or be lucky enough to even see one of these performances locally in Japan.

A ticket to a Noh performance in 2014 will cost somewhere between 5,000 to 8,000yen (approx $40 - $70USD) and can be bought over the counter at the performance theater, though usually only for the new indoor stages. The antiquated outdoor stages are rarely used and hard to obtain tickets for as they are only done on special occasion. They garner significant attention for how small the stages usually are.

Thank you for reading our editorial on Noh Theare! If you would like to read more cultural editorials you can continue here.

This editorial was generously written by Alice!
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