Noh Plays of Japan (Tuttle Classics)

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The support from the imperial government was eventually regained partly due to Noh's appeal to foreign diplomats. The companies that remained active throughout the Meiji era also significantly broadened Noh's reach by catering to the general public, performing at theatres in major cities such as Tokyo and Osaka. The term originated in gagaku , ancient courtly music, to indicate gradually increasing tempo and was adopted in various Japanese traditions including Noh, tea ceremony, poetry, and flower arrangement.

Each play can be broken into three parts, the introduction, the development, and the conclusion. Actors begin their training as young children, traditionally at the age of three. Historically, Noh performers had been exclusively male, but daughters of established Noh actors have begun to perform professionally since the s. In , there were about male and female professional Noh performers. Zeami isolated nine levels or types of Noh acting from lower degrees which put emphasis on movement and violence to higher degrees which represent the opening of a flower and spiritual prowess.

Each school has its own iemoto family that carries the name of the school and is considered the most important.

The Noh Plays of Japan

The iemoto holds the power to create new plays or modify lyrics and performance modes. However, several secret documents of the Kanze school written by Zeami, as well as materials by Konparu Zenchiku , have been diffused throughout the community of scholars of Japanese theatre. A typical Noh play always involves the chorus, the orchestra, and at least one shite and one waki actor. Noh performance combines a variety of elements into a stylistic whole, with each particular element the product of generations of refinement according to the central Buddhist, Shinto , and minimalist aspects of Noh's aesthetic principles.

Noh Plays of Japan by Arthur Waley | Waterstones

There are approximately different masks mostly based on sixty types, all of which have distinctive names. Some masks are representative and frequently used in many different plays, while some are very specific and may only be used in one or two plays. Noh masks signify the characters' gender, age, and social ranking, and by wearing masks the actors may portray youngsters, old men, female, or nonhuman divine , demonic , or animal characters.

Only the shite , the main actor, wears a mask in most plays, even though the tsure may also wear a mask in some plays to represent female characters. Even though the mask covers an actor's facial expressions, the use of the mask in Noh is not an abandonment of facial expressions altogether. Rather, its intent is to stylize and codify the facial expressions through the use of the mask and to stimulate the imagination of the audience.

By using masks, actors are able to convey emotions in a more controlled manner through movements and body language. Some masks utilize lighting effect to convey different emotions through slight tilting of the head. Facing slightly upward, or "brightening" the mask, will let the mask to capture more light, revealing more features that appear laughing or smiling. Facing downward, or "clouding" it, will cause the mask to appear sad or mad.

Noh masks are treasured by Noh families and institution, and the powerful Noh schools hold the oldest and most valuable Noh masks in their private collections, rarely seen by the public. The most ancient mask is supposedly kept as a hidden treasure by the oldest school, the Konparu. The traditional Noh stage has complete openness that provides a shared experience between the performers and the audience throughout the performance.

Behind the Mask of the World's Oldest Surviving Dramatic Art - Short Film Showcase

Without any proscenium or curtains to obstruct the view, the audience sees each actor even during the moments before they enter and after they exit the central "stage". The theatre itself is considered symbolic and treated with reverence both by the performers and the audience. One of the most recognizable characteristic of Noh stage is its independent roof that hangs over the stage even in indoor theatres. Supported by four columns, the roof symbolizes the sanctity of the stage, with its architectural design derived from the worship pavilion haiden or sacred dance pavilion kagura-den of Shinto shrines.


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The roof also unifies the theatre space and defines the stage as an architectural entity. The pillars supporting the roof are named shitebashira principal character's pillar , metsukebashira gazing pillar , wakibashira secondary character's pillar , and fuebashira flute pillar , clockwise from upstage right respectively. Each pillar is associated with the performers and their actions. The stage is made entirely of unfinished hinoki , Japanese cypress, with almost no decorative elements. Neither is there a curtain.


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There is only a simple panel kagami-ita with a painting of a green pine tree. This creates the impression that anything that could provide any shading has been banished. To break such monotony and make something happen is no easy thing. Another unique feature of the stage is the hashigakari , a narrow bridge at upstage right used by actors to enter the stage.

Hashigakari means "suspension bridge", signifying something aerial that connects two separate worlds on a same level. The bridge symbolizes the mythic nature of Noh plays in which otherworldly ghosts and spirits frequently appear. In contrast, hanamichi in Kabuki theatres is literally a path michi that connects two spaces in a single world, thus has a completely different significance. Noh actors wear silk costumes called shozoku robes along with wigs, hats, and props such as the fan. With striking colors, elaborate texture, and intricate weave and embroidery, Noh robes are truly works of art in their own right.

For centuries, in accordance with the vision of Zeami, Noh costumes emulated the clothing that the characters would genuinely wear, such as the formal robes for a courtier and the street clothing for a peasant or commoner. But in the late sixteenth century, the costumes became stylized with certain symbolic and stylistic conventions.

During the Edo Tokugawa period, the elaborate robes given to actors by noblemen and samurai in the Muromachi period were developed as costumes. The musicians and chorus typically wear formal montsuki kimono black and adorned with five family crests accompanied by either hakama a skirt-like garment or kami-shimo , a combination of hakama and a waist-coat with exaggerated shoulders. Finally, the stage attendants are garbed in virtually unadorned black garments, much in the same way as stagehands in contemporary Western theatre.

The use of props in Noh is minimalistic and stylized. The most commonly used prop in Noh is the fan , as it is carried by all performers regardless of role. Chorus singers and musicians may carry their fan in hand when entering the stage, or carry it tucked into the obi the sash. The fan is usually placed at the performer's side when he or she takes position, and is often not taken up again until leaving the stage.

During dance sequences, the fan is typically used to represent any and all hand-held props, such as a sword, wine jug, flute, or writing brush. The fan may represent various objects over the course of a single play. When hand props other than fans are used, they are usually introduced or retrieved by kuroko who fulfill a similar role to stage crew in contemporary theatre. Like their Western counterparts, stage attendants for Noh traditionally dress in black, but unlike in Western theatre they may appear on stage during a scene, or may remain on stage during an entire performance, in both cases in plain view of the audience.

The all-black costume of kuroko implies they are not part of the action on stage and are effectively invisible. Set pieces in Noh such as the boats, wells, altars, and bells, are typically carried onto the stage before the beginning of the act in which they are needed.


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Noh is a chanted drama, and a few commentators have dubbed it "Japanese opera ". However, the singing in Noh involves a limited tonal range, with lengthy, repetitive passages in a narrow dynamic range.

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Texts are poetic, relying heavily on the Japanese seven-five rhythm common to nearly all forms of Japanese poetry , with an economy of expression, and an abundance of allusion. The singing parts of Noh are called " Utai " and the speaking parts " Kataru ". The chant is not always performed "in character"; that is, sometimes the actor will speak lines or describe events from the perspective of another character or even a disinterested narrator.

Far from breaking the rhythm of the performance, this is actually in keeping with the other-worldly feel of many Noh plays, especially in those characterized as mugen. Of the roughly plays created for Noh that are known today, about make up the current repertoire performed by the five existing Noh schools. Noh plays live on as a magnificent artistic heritage handed down from the high culture of medieval Japan.

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Among the major types of Japanese drama, the Noh, which is often called the classical theatre of Japan, has had perhaps the greatest attraction for the West. Introduced to Europe and America through the translations of Arthur Waley and Ezra Pound, it found an ardent admirer in William Butler Yeats, who described it as a form of drama "distinguished, indirect, and symbolic" and created plays in its image.

About the Author: Arthur Waley taught himself Chinese and Japanese after being appointed Assistant Keeper of Oriental Prints and Manuscripts at the British Museum in order to help catalog the paintings in the museum's collection. Additional Product Features Dewey Edition. This is something which is extremely helpful given that the language used in most plays in their original form is likely to be historically antiquated Japanese that can be difficult to understand even for native Japanese speakers.

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