Noh: Steeped in history, traditional theater leverages modern language to connect

The Yomiuri Shimbun

By Tatsuhiro Morishige / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterNoh is an artform of that has a twinlike relationship with kyogen. Although there are many exceptions, noh can be considered tragic drama and kyogen comedy. They are basically performed alternately on the same noh stage. Some experts say such a performance style became the norm “to help the audience balance their minds.”

After the Nara period (710-784), a variety of Japanese performing arts, plus musical genres introduced from China, such as bugaku court music accompanied by dancing, were gradually integrated into noh and kyogen.

Noh was perfected by Zeami into its present form 650 years ago in the early Muromachi period (1336-1573), under the patronage of the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358-1408). Zeami thus is known as the most important person in the history of noh.

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Hosho Kazufusa speaks during an interview.

For several centuries, noh and kyogen were continuously performed under the patronage of warlords, Tokugawa shoguns and daimyo feudal lords, among others. This distinguishes noh from kabuki or bunraku puppet plays, which were performed mainly for the common people. Nohgaku, consisting of noh and kyogen, was brought to the brink of extinction when the system of daimyo, who supported the performing arts, was dismantled with the Meiji Restoration. But it has survived through performances for general audiences since then.

Noh can be described as masked dance drama. The main character is called the shite, and is played by a shite-kata actor who wears a mask onstage. There are plays in which the shite-kata wears no mask, but even then the actor is said to be not allowed to change his facial expression — as if turning his own face into a mask. There are various masks depending on the role, such as god, ogre, woman and warlord. Noh actors are said to transform themselves into their roles by wearing the relevant masks.

Many noh programs are based on classic Japanese literature, such as “Heike Monogatari” (The Tale of the Heike) and “Genji Monogatari” (The Tale of Genji), as well as Japanese and Chinese myths or legends. Verses in such tales are expressed in songs with unique intonations, with shite dances to hayashi musical accompaniment consisting of four instruments: fue flute, otsuzumi hand drum, kotsuzumi shoulder drum and taiko stick drum.

Roles are strictly divided between shite-kata who play leading characters, waki-kata who play the characters opposite the shite, kyogen-kata who explain the story and hayashi-kata who play musical instruments. Performers specialize in one role and do not work in other roles.

Currently there are five organizations of noh actors who play shite. When noh is performed, it is always the shite-kata who invite the waki-kata, kyogen-kata and hayashi-kata to perform in the program.

I would like to recommend a performance to be held very soon. It is The 42nd Noryo Noh in which masters of the five shite-kata schools will gather to perform at the Hosho Noh theater in Bunkyo Ward, Tokyo, on July 19.

It is a valuable opportunity since there are few times when performers belonging to the five shite-kata schools all perform together. Hosho Kazufusa, the grand master of the Hosho school, is just 33 years old, but is an influential figure who succeeded to the top position of the school more than 10 years ago.

In the Noryo Noh, Kazufusa will star in a program called “Kakitsubata” (The Iris), a work inspired by “Ise Monogatari” (The Tales of Ise). It is a love story involving a flirtatious noble in the Heian period (794 to the late 12th century). Kazufusa will play the spirit of the iris, taking the form of a woman. “I want to depict an adult love relationship,” he said with enthusiasm.

In recent years, the nohgaku world has been gradually developing more subtitles in English and other languages for noh performances and offering more guidebooks in foreign languages as many foreigners are expected to visit Japan before and during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

A nohgakushi actor who is designated as a living national treasure once said, “In performances overseas, audiences understand noh more than they do in performances in Japan.” That is because, while noh and kyogen are performed in the ancient languages of the Muromachi period, the subtitles are written in modern language, allowing non-Japanese audiences to grasp the content more easily.

It is true Japanese can fully enjoy operas or musicals even if they don’t entirely understand Italian or English. However it must be true they can understand the performance more if they study the synopsis of the story beforehand.

The same can be said for non-Japanese watching noh.

— Morishige covers traditional performing arts.Speech

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