Japanese Noh theater tradition

  • Posted: Friday, May 24, 2013 12:01 a.m.

More with less. That’s the central idea behind the Japanese tradition of Noh theater, which has been honed over the past 700 years and will be seen at this year’s Spoleto Festival USA (in modernized form) in “Matsukaze.”

“Everything about the performance, other than the mask, the costume and the fan, is quite economical,” said Elizabeth Dowd, the producing director of the Noh Training Project at Bloomsburg Theater Ensemble in Pennsylvania.

Noh uses a simple set and is traditionally performed outdoors, with one painted back wall and no curtains on any other sides.

Noh, which means “skill” or “talent” in both Japanese and Chinese, originated in the 14th century in Japan when a playwright and performer named Zeami synthesized various pre-existing forms.

“Noh is a drama that heals the soul,” wrote “Matsukaze” composer Toshio Hosokawa while creating the opera. The stories often concern the spirit of the dead and his or her emotional attachments. “In contrast to the attempt in Western art to conceive of beauty as timeless and permanent,” he wrote, “Noh finds beauty in the poignancy of a life that scatters away.”

All five of the established Noh narratives are composed of vocals, music and dance, and were originally performed only by men. (This typically is still the case in Japan, although Western programs such as the Noh Training Project teach both genders.)

“There is somewhat more song than speech, and even the speech is kind of recitative rather than ordinary speaking,” said Gary Matthews, a Noh performer who also teaches comparative literature at North Carolina State University.

The vocals are always led by Shite, the heroic protagonist in Noh plays. The pitch is elastic; Shite sets it at different levels, and the chorus adjusts accordingly.

Noh music, meanwhile, is traditionally performed by four instruments: a flute and three drums. Their accompaniment also is elastic, building over the course of the play.

“It is more sparing in the earlier parts, then becomes more frequent as the tempo and dramatic intensity pick up in the later parts,” Matthews said. “This is in accord with a compositional principle known as jo-ha-kyu, which means ‘introduction, development, fast ending,’ which governs actually every part of a Noh play.”

The slow, stylized dances look more like a sequence of carefully choreographed movements.

“The performer moves in angular and circular patterns around the small stage, with very formal arm gestures, holding a fan,” Matthews said.

In addition to the fan, the other central prop in Noh theater is the mask. Despite covering the entire face, the mask helps the performer change his appearance. By tilting it up or down, the neutral mask, which presents no facial expressions when viewed from straight ahead, shows different emotions.

“When the mask is lifted slightly, it appears to look as smiling,” Dowd said. “And when it is down, the shadow falls, and it looks like sorrow on the face.”

For Westerners, Noh most closely resembles medieval morality plays, which were written roughly at the same time. Both make use of masks, songs, dance and a chorus.

“Many Noh plays still in the repertoire do seem to have at their center the elucidation of Buddhist teachings on such matters as worldly attachment, suffering and release,” Matthews said, “much like the morality plays educated people about such Christian ideas as temptation, sin and redemption.”


Xiaoran Ding is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.

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