Good to “Noh”, traditional masked theater.

Noh theater explained

Noh theater explained


The splendor of Noh, fabulous costumes and frightening masks.

The splendor of Noh, fabulous costumes and frightening masks.


Japan has, for centuries been a nation rightly proud of its theatrical heritage. From the very early days of puppet theatre known, eventually as Bunraku to the western world, through its human form descendants of Noh, and later Kabuki, classical forms of theatre in the archipelago have long formed the backbone of nationwide and regional stage based entertainment.

Bunraku puppet theatre, true to its origins remains more popular in the Kansai area around Osaka and Kyoto than anywhere else, with Noh, also an offspring of the area in which Japan’s ruling elite once occupied their respective seats of power also popular to a degree. This popularity is tempered in the central Japanese region though, as, largely in order to survive, what is the slowest, and perhaps most regal form of theatre frequently performed today long since opted to up and move east – following the nation’s upper classes to Tokyo; the modern day seat of both imperial and political power.

In Tokyo, Noh performances in the main schools of the art (Kanze, Komparu, Hosho, Kongo and Kita) can generally be seen every weekend as there are more than double the number of Noh theatres in the capital than any other form of traditional theatre form. There are also some shows put on during the week, in the early evenings for the most part, and at the National Noh Theatre in the Sendagaya area of the capital, special Summertime shows introducing Noh to beginners are always popular.


Noh ( ), or Nogaku (能楽 Nōgaku)—derived from the Sino-Japanese word for “skill” or “talent”—is a major form of classical Japanese musical drama that has been performed since the 14th century. Many characters are masked, with men playing male and female roles. Traditionally, a Noh “performance day” lasts all day and consists of five Noh plays interspersed with shorter, humorous kyōgen pieces. However, present-day Noh performances often consist of two Noh plays with one Kyōgen play in between.

While the field of Noh performance is extremely codified, and regulated by the iemoto system, with an emphasis on tradition rather than innovation, some performers do compose new plays or revive historical ones that are not a part of the standard repertoire. Works blending Noh with other theatrical traditions have also been produced.


Noh is far more about conceptualization than any of the other forms of theatre still being performed in Japan. Whereas Kabuki has long been labeled the theatre of the masses due to its ability to visually entertain those less aware of all but the most famous of Japan’s founding tales, and early-era mythology, Noh requires an awareness, often studied before, of the subject matter to be witnessed.

Imagery and imagination reign in Noh with the comprehension and eventual enjoyment of a given play limited to the mind of each individual watching.

Unlike many other forms of theatre around Japan and the world, Noh plays are not usually rehearsed. The actors themselves do study and practice their given roles of course, but not together before the play is actually put on in front of an audience. This in effect has its pros and cons, with long term fans well aware that the pluses far outweigh the minuses.


Vivid and Powerful Noh masks. Three pictures of the same nō 'hawk mask' showing how the expression changes with a tilting of the head. The mask was afixed to a wall with constant lighting and only the camera moved.

Vivid and Powerful Noh masks. Three pictures of the same nō ‘hawk mask’ showing how the expression changes with a tilting of the head. The mask was afixed to a wall with constant lighting and only the camera moved.

The skills of individual actors tend to shine through when under pressure to get it right first time, and it is always the main actor – known as the shite – who will carry the play. As good as any supporting actors may be, their roles will be designed so as not to do anything to take away from the top dog.

There is only one ‘shite’ in each play and, more often than not, no more than perhaps five to seven actors on stage at any one point in time; oftentimes fewer than five depending on which of the roughly 250 plays in the accepted repertoire of Noh is being shown.

Recognized as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in May, 2001, Noh has safely preserved its status in Japanese and global society as both a theatrical and cultural treasure, although many Japanese, and fewer tourists never actually get near a theatre, claiming the archaic language in use, and slow speed at which things progress to be factors that prevent them from developing an interest in the art.

Jo, Ha, Kyū

One of the most subtle performance elements of Noh is that of Jo-ha-kyū, which originated as the three movements of courtly gagaku. However, rather than simply dividing a whole into three parts, within Noh the concept incorporates not only the play itself, but the songs and dances within the play, and even the individual steps, motions, and sounds that actors and musicians make. Furthermore, from a higher perspective, the entire traditional Noh program of five plays also manifests this concept, with the first type play being the jo, the second, third, and fourth plays the ha (with the second play being referred to as the jo of the ha, the third as the ha of the ha, and the fourth as the kyū of the ha), and finally the fifth play the kyū. In general, the jo component is slow and evocative, the ha component or components detail transgression or the disordering of the natural way and the natural world, and the kyū resolves the element with haste or suddenness (note, however, that this only means kyū is fast in comparison with what came before it, and those unfamiliar with the concepts of Noh may not even realize the acceleration occurred).

Want to experience this ancient form of Japanese culture?

If you are considering to spend an afternoon in the presence of what remains the oldest form of masked theatre (the use of a mask a privilege only bestowed upon the ‘shite’) anywhere in the world, however,remember many of the previous naysayers are captivated and repeat visits are soon planned.

For those interested in attending a show in Tokyo, an Internet search of the aforementioned main school names should turn up more options to sample this treasure than could realistically be listed but will help in English. Otherwise, head on over to the National Noh Theatre site to see what the nation’s main theatre has lined up in the weeks and months ahead.

Do be prepared to splash out a tad as tickets are not cheap – but rest assured you will take away a memory as mystifying as it is impressing.


Categories: Japanese customs, Must see, Stories about Japan, Things to do | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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