Noh 能 (Japanese classic drama)


‘Noh’ is a Japanese word and its literal meaning is "skill" or "talent". It is a unique Japanese form of theater very different from the western theater in style, story and presentation. There are no directors, producers or designers, as the play is performed according to already set outlines. It is a blend of dance, drama, music and poetry into one highly artistic stage art. The hero is often a supernatural being who takes on human form to narrate a story. He covers his face with specially designed masks for the roles of gods, ghosts, evil spirits and women etc. ‘Noh’ actors do not show any dramatic actions as in other theaters. They do not speak, rather tell the story through their artistic movements, singing, musical accompaniment and dance. Unlike Western theater, ‘Noh’ performers are simply storytellers who use their visual appearances by wearing masks and costumes and their movements to suggest the tale rather than to enact it. The language of ‘Noh’ plays is beautiful and poetic, and the singing style is very distinctive.


The Japanese audience know the story’s plot very well, so they admire the symbols and allusions to Japanese cultural history. So for a first-time viewer, to enjoy ‘Noh’ plays, it is important to be familiar with the unique Japanese worldview. The Japanese believe that there is another world behind our real world and the dead people can appear in this world by crossing over the border. According to Buddhism philosophy, a departed soul could not find spiritual salvation if she is overwhelmed by any shocking experiences of the past. So often the ‘Noh’ plays portray the return of a historical personage in spirit form to the site of an unforgettable incident in her life.


In Western drama, the emphasis is often on the plot and the actor’s roles. While in ‘Noh’, the story and the ‘essence’ of the play are important. No single performer dominates in the play rather all the elements mix into a single harmonic whole. The stories are usually tragic and related to an abstract world of gods, demons and evil spirits. Plots are usually drawn from legend, history, literature and contemporary events. Themes often relate to supernatural worlds, ghosts and demons etc.‘Noh’ plays are divided into four categories.
  1)God plays: the main performer appears as a human in the first act and a deity in the second and tells the mythic story of a shrine or a particular spirit.

  2)Warrior plays: the main performer appears as a ghost in the first act and a warrior in the second, re-enacting the scene of his death.
  3)Women plays: These plays are about beautiful women and the most beautiful and very mysterious.
  4)Miscellaneous: present time plays, and which do not fall into any other category.


‘Noh’ originated about 700 years ago and is the oldest performing arts still existing in its original form in Japan. Originally, ‘Noh’ was performed in open fields. From the late 19th century, ‘Noh’ is a class of symbolic drama and its themes are more concerned with human destiny than with events.


‘Noh’ stage is very ‘simple’ than modern theater. It does not have large set items or many props. In order to retain the idea of performing outdoors, the modern ‘Noh’ stage is designed complete with details such as a roof, bridge with a handrail and a pine tree painted 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 about 6m square with four pillars at four corners supporting the roof. There is a roofed passageway, which connects the main stage to the backstage. Symbolically, the passageway connects the real world to the spiritual world. There is no curtain between the playing area and the audience. The seating area for the audience is different from regular theaters. The audience sit in front of and to one side of the main stage. The main stage slopes slightly downward to give a better view of the play. The back wall and the ceiling are built in a way to enhance the sound of the play. The ceiling is angled to deflect the sound towards the audience. ‘Noh’ plays use two types of sounds. One is a ‘Noh’ song sung by a male chorus in low and slow voices. The other type is the background music for each scene in a play. These sounds are very important to express the mood of a scene or a character’s emotion. ‘Noh’ actors and musicians only rehearse once, just a few days before the performance. Interestingly, each performer practices his or her part independently so the overall mood of the play is not set by any individual actor but established by the collective performance of all the team. At the end of the ‘Noh’ play, actors do not come on the stage to say goodbye to audience by bowing, unlike in western theater.
They leave the stage one by one at short intervals while the audience claps.


The masks and the costumes are very closely related to the interpretation, acting, and producing of a role. ‘Noh’ performers don’t use make-up but cover the face with a mask to convey facial expressions. That is why the masks are so important that they can make or break a ‘Noh’ performance. The mask of a particular character has almost a magic power. By wearing it, the ‘Noh’ actor’s individuality vanishes and he is just the emotion to be depicted. The mask truly represents the role of the actor. These masks are designed so intelligently that slight adjustments in the position of the head can express diverse emotions such as sadness or pleasure due to the variance in lighting and the angle shown towards the audience. For example a dark and twisted mask might be for an evil character, while a bright and perfect looking might be for a good. A mask worn with a downward tilt expresses sorrow while upward tilt shows joy. ‘Noh’ masks are carved out of wood. They generally have a neutral expression but the expert mask carver instills a variety of emotions in the mask and the experienced actor brings the mask to life through his acting.
Also, the ‘Noh’ characters are beautifully costumed. Costumes in ‘Noh’ are elaborately made with gorgeously dyed silk and intricate embroidery. The detail of design, the color combinations, The training of a ‘Noh’ actor traditionally begins at a very early age before he enters school. Typically the young boy begins training with his father. Traditions are upheld from generation to generation, often handed down through family dynasties of performers.


It was just after the Second World War that ‘Noh’ began to be performed in foreign countries providing more chances to the people around the world to enjoy this Japanese stage art. The first such performance was in Venice, Italy in 1954.


Even after hundreds of years, ‘Noh’ continues to flourish. There are five schools of ‘Noh’ acting and approximately 1,500 professional performers today, who make their living largely through performing and teaching ‘Noh’. The society of ‘Noh’ actors protects their secrets and traditions strictly.


‘Noh’ has been highly praised around the world for its great artistic value. In 2001, UNESCO added the art of ‘Noh’ to its Intangible Cultural Heritage list as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.