Noh theater, or more accurately the Nôgaku theater umbrella Noh falls under, was inscribed on the list of Intangible Cultural Heritages of UNESCO in 2008.

As any other cultural heritage does for its mother culture, Nôgaku is a representation of the identity and continuity of Japanese culture, in the form of a performance art that has been handed down from one generation to the next, all the way back from the 9th century.

As a matter of fact, various modern-day Japanese performance art forms from theater and comedy to even pop songs carry resemblance of features of Nôgaku, and many of the plots of the ancient performance art give us an idea of what life was like in Middle Age Japan. One can safely say Nôgaku would be a key starting point for those who aim to understand Japanese culture and its people’s way of thinking.

However the problem is: Nôgaku is not an Apple product and making sense out of it on your first view will be quite a challenge. It’s an acquired taste, and like the world of wine, requires some prerequisite knowledge to fully appreciate. The vast majority of Japanese people, like any non-Japanese spectator, would be like “WTF is going on” during much of the show. However, like the world of wine, Nôgaku is a one-and-only wonderland of cultural expression once you do set foot in it.

So here is a dummy’s guide that will help you to enjoy your first authentic and traditional Japanese art experience.

1. A Nôgaku show is a compilation album

A Nôgaku show is, more often than not, a collection of plays rather than a single play. It’s like a half-day-long music festival where different artists and groups do their own thing, and Noh-goers buy a ticket to see all the performances (or just the ones he/she wants to see). Hundreds of years ago, one show spanned all day.

Just like a music album, which often contains different types of songs (upbeat, mellow, experimental, etc.), a Nôgaku show comprises of up to 3 different types of performances:

  • Noh
  • Kyogen
  • Shimai

Watching Noh is a very outlandish and spiritual experience featuring stories about the dead or supernatural creatures, and Kyogen is a humorous depiction of people’s day-to-day problems. Being shown these two opposites lets us form a mental picture of the great contrast, and also fluidity, between the world of us living beings and the world of the dead.

While the above two are both plays, Shimai is a short dance performance. Because there is no story to Shimai, one could say that it is a medium to showcase the skills and abilities the performer has acquired over decades of practice.

The length of each performance varies, but here is an approximation:

  • Noh: 1 hour or more
  • Kyogen: up to 30 minutes
  • Shimai: 10 to 20 minutes

The duration of a Nôgaku show will vary depending on the combination and number of these types of performances.

1-1. The art of efficiency and imagination

One trait they have in common is “efficiency.” For example, no matter what the story is, the stage is never modified from its original form:

  • A roofed main stage for the main actors to act and dance
  • Spaces for the musicians to position themselves off to the side and behind the main stage
  • A back panel with a picture of an aged pine tree
  • A corridor leading up to the stage
The stage in the National Noh Theatre in Sendagaya, Tokyo

It has been at least 650 years since Nôgaku took its current form, and this asymmetrical stage, apparently, is the ultimate design for the performance art.

There is no elaborate stage equipment to depict the settings of the plays because all it takes is just a little imagination of the people in the audience to “see” a boat, a river, a torch, a temple or a village. These types of information are given more through storytelling and context instead of photorealistic objects and stage sets, which is a great contrast from many contemporary stage performances.

Props are very minimalistic, too. An actor may use a hand-held fan to pretend he is eating with chopsticks. A red brush will be held in place of a real torch.

Even the singing and acting are done efficiently. The actor (although Nôgaku was reserved for men for centuries, there are female Noh performers lately) does not alter his voice even when he plays the role of a woman or supernatural being.

Why? Well, do us, the human race, always, always need a hot female model with a seductive voice to represent a female role? Isn’t a mask of a devil enough to make a point that the actor is in character? Of Nôgaku, especially Noh relies on and leverages the imaginative power of human beings. Noh is a collaborative art completed only through a joint effort of both the performers and the audience, and is only appreciated in full in the creative minds of the spectators. Us in the audience are a vital part of the performance.

2: Noh: an offering for the gods

So what is Noh?

Noh is a play with music, song and dance with “death” positioned as a central theme, performed for the gods. “Which gods?” would be a difficult question to answer because Noh bases itself on Japanese Buddhist beliefs (not the original, Indian Buddhism) while strictly speaking, there is no god in Buddhism.

Japanese people, from way back in history, thought that when a person died, their souls went to hell, entered a supernatural world (like heaven) as supernatural beings, or stayed in their world as ghosts. So the “gods” for whom Noh is meant to be performed, can also refer to the great number of people who have died in history.

The current form of Noh was established by a performance artist called Kan-ami and his son Ze-ami back in the 15th century. The Shogun (the most powerful feudal lord of Middle-age Japan) at the time was their patron, and therefore Noh originally developed with the objective to inspire people in authority.

The other well-known Japanese performance art, Kabuki, on the other hand, was given birth as a form of entertainment meant for the public. Therefore today, there is a “One Piece Kabuki,” a Kabuki performance inspired by the famous Japanese manga/animation One Piece, but there is no such thing as “One Piece Noh.”

2-1. The Shinto and Buddhist background of Noh

From more than a thousand years back, Japanese people did not doubt there was a god in everything – from trees and rivers to garments and cooking utensils. This was a Shinto belief in which people considered mother nature as a supernatural existence and therefore worshiped it.

So when Buddhism came into Japan via China and Korea in the 7th century as a modern and fashionable religion, Japanese people automatically assumed there was a god or two to be worshiped. This is probably why Buddha eventually came to be considered an equivalent to a god in Japan, thus blurring the line between Shinto and Buddhism. There is even an idiom in Japanese that goes 「神様仏様… (Kamisama hotokesama…)」 which basically means “God, or Buddha, whichever, please help me…”

Japanese people are not really atheists. The way I see it, we tend to admit that we don’t understand everything about the supernatural world OR the world we live in and accept many different interpretations. For more details on the history of religion in Japan, read this: Japanese Buddhism – its history and now

So when it comes to offering Noh to the gods, the recipient is not totally clear, but it’s definitely not an offering to the audience because at the beginning and end of a Noh performance, you will not see the actors bow towards you.

You will probably find it strange to see a person sitting behind the main actor during a show who hands the actor a prop or fixes his costume from time to time. This person is called a “Kou-ken” and oftentimes, he is the most skilled actor among everyone on stage. His job is to support the main actor and also, in the rare case that the actor falls unconscious for some reason, resume the play by substituting for the fallen actor. Because it is an offering to the gods, the show must not stop.

And by the way, you cannot watch Noh without fighting the urge to fall asleep due to its slow tempo and meditative nature, but it’s not considered entirely rude to fall asleep. Because the performance is not for you!

Another aspect of Noh you may find peculiar is that the audience is not expected to applaud. You can if you want to, but the real audience is the gods and you and your imagination are part of the performance. So don’t clap unless you hear other people do.

2-2. Noh is often a requiem

More often than not, the main character of a Noh performance is the ghost of a person who ended his/her life in a tragic death or loss in war. In most plays, these dead souls mourn about how life ended miserably for them, but are saved in the afterlife by supernatural means.

Noh can therefore be considered a requiem for the many poor lives that had to end unjustly. Like in any Middle Age in any civilization, death was commonplace in Middle Age Japan, and people needed a way to deal with the psychological pain they had to experience so often. For samurais, whose job was to fight and kill the opponent, Noh was a requiem for the souls that lost in battle against them; recognizing the loser’s struggles and sorrow was a gesture of respect towards the dead.

Take the Noh performance Ukai as an example. The story is about a fisherman’s ghost reminiscing his last few moments of his life – more specifically, how he was killed by village-people for secretly fishing within a no-fishing area of a river (now called Fuefuki River, where ukai fishing is still practiced).

The term “ukai” refers to a type of fishing technique which involves using living aquatic birds (called cormorants, or “wu” in Japanese) to catch fish on a torch-lit boat at night.

With a rope, the neck of each cormorant is tied just tight enough so that small fish can pass the throat and bigger fish will stay stuck in the throat. When the torch is lit with fire, sweetfish underwater start moving out of surprise, and their scales reflect the light and therefore the cormorants can spot them, and catch them. The cormorants come back to the boat and spit out the big fish they couldn’t swallow.

An Ukai fisherman setting off his cormorants to catch sweetfish

Let us go back to the story of the Noh performance Ukai.

The play starts when a group of traveling Buddhist monks is told to use an abandoned temple across a river to rest under a roof for the night by a villager (instead of offering shelter at his own house, which would have been more help). When they arrive, they meet an old ukai fisherman there and he reminds one of the monks of a man who offered shelter and food the last time he visited the area.

The old fisherman says that kind man was caught catching fish with his cormorants in a no-fishing area designated by the village, was tied and thrown into the river, and was therefore killed. He then adds that he himself is the ghost of the punished and killed fisherman.

The monks ask the ghost to show them the art of ukai fishing. The ghost does, shamefully at first (because he was aware that taking lives of living creatures, including fish, was a taboo in Buddhism), but eventually begins to express the extravagant joy of ukai fishing and the savage side of human nature through a disturbingly animated dance.

It is through dialogues like this between the dead and the living that the whole picture of the real world comes to light. An ukai fisherman, who could exercises kindness towards strangers by offering shelter and food, could also commit crime and get killed by villagers who observe the no-fishing rule but wouldn’t exert goodwill towards traveling monks needing lodging.

While the villagers savagely killed the ukai fisherman, the fisherman himself hid a kind of savageness in heart, feeling addicted to the art of handling birds to catch fish.

In the latter half of the play Ukai, the god of death, learning what happened from an objective standpoint, decides to forgive the ukai fisherman and makes sure his soul doesn’t go to hell. Noh, again, is often a requiem for the vast number of souls who suffered miserable deaths.

2-3. Noh expresses the proximity of life and death

Noh performances are awfully slow in tempo. Movements are slow and each syllable of each word is elongated for seconds whenever performers sing (which makes it difficult even for ordinary Japanese people to comprehend what is being sung). You will feel there is a lot of weight and concentration put into every move and word. The slowness creates a sharp contrast to our modern, busy everyday life, and makes Noh a unique and unworldly, meditative experience.

Now while you watch Noh, you may fall into a certain kind of trance, especially if you triumph, just barely, over your fight against the urge to fall asleep. Many Noh performers claim this sensation to be caused by the multiple and consecutive round trips between our world and the afterlife a Noh play takes the actors and the audience on.

In fact, when I first watched Ukai, my consciousness did make it through to the end of the performance, but it was about to fail by the time the play got to its first climax – when the ukai fisherman was showing his skills to the monks. Half of my mind managed to stay awake and gaze towards the stage, while the other half went into a dream.

I know the actor was holding a red brush in place of a torch and there were only a flutist, three percussionists each with a small taiko drum and a few chorus-men making music – a very minimalistic ensemble. However, what the then-half-conscious I remember seeing was a dancer holding a real, blazing torch, dancing to very loud psychedelic music, and the best analogy I can make to describe the experience I had during that scene was “a hallucination of a hard rock festival.”

That peculiar sensation of being on the fence between wake and sleep does remind us of the dualistic nature of our world. Life and death are two sides of a coin.

Watching Noh, it was just amazing to realize how we perceive events relative to one another; because the tempo was so consistently slow and the presentation was so consistently minimalistic, you start to perceive even the slightest change as impactful, major developments. Again, feeling drowsy is part of watching Noh and it contributes to creating the extraordinary experience.

2-4. Noh masks: one face, hundred emotions

Noh masks have several distinct features, other than the fact that it gives chills down your spine.

Noh masks are used over and over for decades and centuries, and for some performances, the mask worn by the very first creator of Noh, Ze-ami some 600 years ago, is used still now. A descendant of Ze-ami, the 26th generation KANZE Kiyokazu says in an interview that the long history of some masks do influence his determination to perform at his best when he puts one on.

The small eyeholes limit the wearer’s sight range severely to the extent that even the simple act of walking becomes problematic. However, because of the optical restraint, the Noh performer can truly concentrate on facing his/her inner self. To know where he/she is on stage, the pillars of the Noh stage function as reference points.

Masks are worn for plays in which the protagonist is not a grown male. When the actor represents a grown, living man, masks are not worn. However, the actor is expected not to show any sort of emotion by means of changing his facial expression; he needs to maintain a blank face, as if he is wearing a mask.

Mask or no mask, Noh actors express emotional changes only by tilting their faces. Looking slightly upwards so that the face is lit from above makes the face or mask look as if it is delighted, and looking slightly downwards so that the face is lit from below makes it look as if it’s sad. It is said that Noh masks are crafted in a way that the viewer interprets different emotions depending on the angle we look at them.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that subtle communication of emotions is valued both in Noh and in the high-context culture of Japan. We will look at the song and dance of Noh when we discuss Shimai later on in this article.

3. Kyogen: the origin of Japanese slap-stick comedy

Kyogen is the most ancient, still-surviving form of Japanese comedy, and like Noh, it hasn’t changed much over the last 650 years. Kyogen gives you the bliss of realizing that human beings share humor across dozens of generations.

Depending on the play, there may be musicians accompanying Kyogen just like Noh, and the instruments used are the same.

Kyogen features a type of humor that doesn’t require much intellectual background or awareness of current affairs, like politics, in order to appreciate – it’s slap-stick comedy refined over the course of several hundred years.

3-1. Kyogen depicts farces in our day-to-day lives

If Noh is the ying of Nôgaku, Kyogen is the yang. They developed through hundreds of years side by side, complementing each other as opposite forms of entertainment.

While Noh is entirely sung in ancient, poetic Japanese (which is a challenge to decipher even for the average Japanese person), Kyogen applies the everyday Japanese language of Middle Age Japan, and comprehension of the language used is far easier.

Although the time setting is in line with Noh, the characters of Kyogen are far more relatable. The protagonists of Kyogen plays are often imperfect human beings with a blemish, and it is the blemish that makes these characters likable. Here are some examples:

  • A servant who is diligent and loyal to his master, but is also clumsy and careless
  • A feudal lord who carries a lot of pride and arrogance but in fact does not carry a lot of authority or money
  • A country bumpkin – nicest person on Earth, but meanwhile the biggest pushover
  • A cunning fraudster who ends up failing and then apologizing
  • A priest who boasts of his spiritual power to heal wounds and illnesses, but fails half the time

These characters are, obviously, representations of someone around us. The combination of their attempting to accomplish something they are totally incompetent of accomplishing and their unyielding confidence in their ability to reach their goals is what makes Kyogen enjoyable to anyone from any culture.

What’s interesting is that although Kyogen was entertainment for the samurais and the feudal lords they served for, many Kyogen shows were about peasants outdoing lords and making fun of them.

3-2. Kyogen and its resemblance in Japanese comedy

Kyogen, like Noh, is minimalistic. It is performed by a small group – of two or three actors, there are no elaborate set pieces, and actors use their handheld fans to pretend to hold a pair of chopsticks or a bowl. It is through their skilled acting that they make the audience “see” real items being used.

Another traditional Japanese entertainment form, Rakugo (the traditional stand-up comedy of Japan, which in contrast to its Western equivalent, is performed sitting down), shares some minimalistic aspects with Kyogen. In Rakugo, dialogues are performed by a single person, and only a handheld fan is used as a prop. Costumes of Kyogen are relatively more humble compared to those of Noh, and the clothings of Rakugo performers wear on stage are even more humble compared to those of Kyogen.

The modern form of Japanese stand-up comedy (called “Owarai”) is most often performed by a pair of comedians, in dialogue format, just like Kyogen. The slap-stick aspect of Kyogen is prominent in Owarai and similar comedy performance techniques are repeatedly used.

Considering the fact that Kyogen is the oldest-surviving form of comedy in Japan, it is safe to say that all modern Japanese mediums of humor have roots in Kyogen.

4. Shimai – An aria-only performance of Noh

Like an aria of a musical or opera, when only the most exciting or memorable part of a Noh play is performed, it is called a Shimai (performed only by an actor and chorus-men) or Mai-bayashi (performed by an actor, chorus-men, and instrumentalists).

Noh actors perform Shimai and Mai-bayashi without wearing the costume or mask they would when they perform the play in full. They instead wear a kind of kimono that often come in black and gray.

When it begins, the actor would sing the first verse sitting down, and then stand up as the music starts, perform the dance, and sit down at where she started to close the Shimai. Here’s a video example:

Here, let me draw your attention away from the story-telling of Noh and instead towards the unique dance and vocal traditions.

4-1. The distinct moves of Noh dance

The first thing you may notice when a Noh, Shimai or even Kyogen starts, is the distinct walk – more like shuffling – the actors do on stage. They walk across stage without lifting their feet or making any sound, and it looks as if they are moving on a moving pavement. If they walked across stage with a bowl of water in their hands, hardly any ripples would be made. This special walk is called Suri-ashi.

Nobody really knows why Suri-ashi came to be an integral part of Noh dance. There are several theories and probably a combination of some or all of these was the reason:

  • The founding fathers Kan-ami and Ze-ami incorporated all sorts of Japanese cultural heritages of the time into Noh, and Suri-ashi came from the moves of martial arts of Samurai (called Kobudō). Samurai actually walked like this because they always had to carry around two heavy swords on their waist and Suri-ashi helped to mitigate stress on their body.
  • Suri-ashi was practical for people to walk through marshes. Dispersing weight evenly throughout the foot instead of going heel-first allowed people to stay afloat over mud.
  • Because of the Shinto belief that there was god in everything in nature, the ground was seen as the god of soil and therefore Suri-ashi was a gesture meant to not awaken him/her.

But all these are speculations generated from the little written records left of Nôgaku.

A definite fact about Noh dance is that the actor firmly adheres to the ground almost throughout a performance and maintains equilibrium of the body both in action and in standstill. The actor concentrates his/her energy inwards all the while. Noh performers say that after keeping a high degree of concentration for hours, they go into a physical state close to a runner’s high.

While Western dance often features horizontal and vertical movements such as jumps and leaps, Noh movements center around “turns,” which makes sense because the square Noh stage is made to be seen from three directions.

Also to be noted is the consistency of, again, minimalism in the dance. Noh dances are made up of combinations of little moves, each with a unique name. Actors practice each individual move repeatedly for years and eventually reach a point where they feel they have certain mastery over it.

A few moves carry a specific meaning, such as the move “Shiori” where the actor casts his/her slanted palm in front of the forehead, meaning the character is crying. However the vast majority of Noh moves have no meanings associated to them. More focus is put on the aesthetics and delicacy of the dance moves.

4-2. The distinct vocal nature of Noh

It is said that Noh actors don’t sing; they breathe the song out. The ideal vocal sound in Noh differs greatly from that of the Western classical ideal. Low, thick, breathy and cracked vocal timbres are preferred in Noh, while clear and refined vocal timbres are sought for in Western classical music. This unique preference in timbre is a much greater priority than harmony.

A group of Japanese scientists who analyzed the vocal sound of Noh theorizes in their research that perhaps the difference in the definition of beauty between the West and Japan was what caused the Noh vocal timbre to be as it is now. While the West tend to consider artificially created matters artistic, the Japanese tend to like creations that blend in or adhere to nature.

The clear and refined Western vocal timbre is the ultimate form of human conquest of nature in the realm of voice – it is something only man can make. The Noh vocal timbre is a type of sound that exists in nature and everyday life.

4-3. The 4 instrumentalists and chorus-men of Noh

The instrumental ensemble sitting behind the actor during a Noh or Shimai performance consists of only a maximum of 4 instruments: a flute, two handheld drums each with a different timbre, and a taiko drum placed on the floor and struck with sticks. Depending on the song, there will be chorus-men sitting on the right-hand side of the stage. Like a string ensemble in Western classical music, there is no conductor.

The two hand-held taiko drummers will not just strike their instruments, but also use their voices and rhythmic rests to let the other performers know the timing they strike. You’ll notice that in most parts of the performance the instrumentalists are not bound so strictly to rhythm, but gradually start to synchronize as the music approaches the most exciting part.

What’s amazing is that the actors, instrumentalists and chorus-men typically rehearse only once before the performance. According to Noh actor Takahiro Ueda, everyone pursuing a career in Noh and Kyogen is self-employed and specializes in his/her role on stage. An actor of a protagonist role will only play protagonist, an actor of a supportive role will only play such characters, and a flutist will only play flute. Therefore each performer carries high professionalism and hence only one rehearsal is all they need as an ensemble.

An interesting fact is that although these performers only play their designated roles exclusively on stage, they do practice other roles and instruments at home in order to understand each other better.

5. Experience Nôgaku

It is a said that Noh is far better understood if done than watched. Workshops are held (irregularly in most places, unfortunately) at various places in Japan, allowing participants to learn basic moves and songs from real Noh and Kyogen performers, and even step foot on stage and wear some masks.

Here are two websites to look at for such workshops and hope there’s a workshop held during your stay in Japan.

Cerulean Tower Noh Theatre
Shibuya, Tokyo
See their Calendar for dates for performances and workshops. The Noh theater is open to visitors for public viewing on most afternoons 2:30PM – 5:30PM, admission is free, and reservations are not necessary.
Theatre Nohgaku Blog A group of Noh performers and enthusiasts conducting workshops throughout the year. The location and dates can be found out by inquiring them through their blog.

To look for and buy tickets for Nôgaku performances, this website will come in handy.

It’s a fact that Nôgaku is popular more among elderly people, and the reason is that this performance art experience is greatly enhanced by the viewer’s imaginative competence, and the more aged you are, the more references and perspectives you can pull from your life experiences and cast them upon the Noh stage.

Noh performer NOBORU Yasuda says that the Noh stage is an ancient AR (augmented reality) device that’s powered by the viewer’s imagination. Why not go see what your imagination could do?