Noh: Japan's Oldest Traditional Theater

Noh or Nogaku (“talent,” “skill”) is the oldest traditional form of Japanese musical drama, performed since the 1300s. A Noh performance combines drama, dance, poetry, and music. Noh actors were usually all male and wore masks. All-day performances  consisted of five Noh plays plus the shorter, comical kyōgen plays. Now, Noh is usually composed of one kyōgen play between two Noh plays.

Noh masks | sigusr0

Noh performances are codified using the iemoto system, which is a Japanese term that refers to the founder of a Japanese school of traditional art. Noh evolved from folk art forms such as Dengaku and Shirabyoshi.

Noh was initially performed only for the Japanese aristocracy. During the Muromachi Period (1336-1573), Zeami Motokiyo and his father Kan’ami, both actors and playwrights, established the Noh theater of today. It became a popular form of entertainment for all social classes during the Edo Period. Noh has greatly influenced other theater performance forms such as Kabuki.

Noh performance | raichovak

Noh combines elements of Shinto, Buddhism, and minimalism that have been refined through generations. Noh performers rehearse as a group only once before the start of the show. Otherwise, they practice individually with the assistance of a senior school member. A performance does not rely on just one actor, but rather on how they interact and connect as a whole during the show itself. It follows the aesthetics of transience embodied in the saying, “one chance, one meeting.”

Noh theatre workshop | Fusion Youth Theatre

The Noh plays are identified by theme and categorized into five types:

Kami mono – a mythic story that depicts the worship of a particular deity. The first act portrays a human who transitions into a deity in the second act.

Shura mono – a warrior play with a shite, or main character, as a ghost in the first act. He becomes a warrior wearing full battle gear and depicting his death scene in the second act.

Katsura mono –  a women’s play where the shite is a female persona. It showcases the most sophisticated dances and songs of Noh theater.

Kyōran mono (madness plays), Onryō mono (vengeful ghost plays), and other miscellaneous plays – there are about 94 kinds of plays that cannot be categorized.

Ori mono (demon plays) and kiri mono (final plays) – the shite performs as demons or goblins in bright colors. Usually tense and fast-paced.

The National Noh Theater of Tokyo (in Sendagaya, Shibuya-ku) stages Noh plays about 16 performance usually lasts 6 hours. English-speaking audiences are given a one-page explanation of the plot.

Noh stage | Mike Raybourne