Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Medieval to Renaissance – Japanese Noh Theatre

Medieval to Renaissance Theatre – Japanese Noh Theatre


Many people regard European theatre and its traditions as the centre for change in dramatic focus and forms but the major movement towards a Renaissance Theatre probably happen first in Japan in the form of the Noh Theatre. Traditional Japanese theatre has three major forms Noh Theatre, Bunraku Puppet Theatre and Kabuki Theatre.


Although this workshop and this material concentrates on Noh Theatre, it is useful to look at the following videoclip to get an idea of these three traditional forms of Japanese Theatre.

Noh Theatre is a Japanese form of mask theatre developed during the 14th Century.


It uses a number of dance-drama forms. Normally in Noh, there is masked drama, dance and music, two main actors, a chorus (6 - 12), three musicians, masks, splendid costumes, few props and a simple stage. The main character in Noh is called a shite and the subsidiary or side-character is called a waki. Quite often a Chorus is evident which functions in much the same way that a Greek Chorus does. Some of the elements that categorize Noh are its slow and controlled style, it elongated or extended vocal sounds and the stylized movements of the feet and hands. To introduce Noh, teachers may want students to look at the following video links. The first is a lecture with demonstrations of vocal , movement and characters aspects of Noh Theatre:

Some Noh Theatre History
In the Mid-13th century, Noh started to evolve as a more structured and codified theatre form out of a number of folk and court performance and storytelling forms. Some of these would have been mask and puppet based performance forms. But the spectacle, rituals, stories, characters and performing artistry of the Noh was much more sophisticated than anything that had existed in Japan before.

By the 14th century in the Japanese city of Kyoto, Dengaku-no-No had started. Here is a description of an early performance:
Two companies were competing against one another, each actors being sumptuously dressed, powered and painted, and with blackened teeth. Sarugaku actors leapt and twirled. The spectators were so carried away in excitement that the stamping of their feet began to manifest their delight, resulting in the stands collapsing. Panic ensued, robbers took advantage of it and swords were drawn from their scabbards. The celebration ended in bloodshed.” (Frederick 1972:222)
·      Kanami Kiyotsugu (born 1333 died1384) was an important early founder of Noh Theatre.
かなみ清次( 生まれ1333 年には 1384 年に死亡)は、能楽堂の重要な初期創設者だった。

·      His son Zeami (born 1363 died 1443) wrote Noh theatre dramas and writings on the theory and technique of Noh Drama.


·      The l5th Century was the golden age for Noh and the dominant audience were samurais.
·      Some plays were about war and others were about spirits and spiritual release
·      Ordinary people were denied seeing Noh by law by the 17 century.

Forms of the Noh Plays

There are 5 major forms of Noh Drama plays

1.    God plays 神ドラマ
2.    Warrior-ghost plays 戦士と幽霊ドラマ
3.    Women plays 女性のドラマ
4.    Plays of Insanity 狂気ドラマ
5.    Demon plays. 悪魔ドラマ

The action in a Noh play is normally done retrospectively or as a recollection and often a poetic or dreamlike quality is thus often evident. Traditionally, all forms were performed in the one day with a sixth form of ritual or drama called an Okina performed first which had more of a religious purpose. Today individual play forms are often performed on their own.

1.    God Plays – The first scene is a shite in the first scene where a simple story is told or poem recited about the origin of the shrine or theatre. After interval the story of the individual god is often told. Here is a clip of a modern cross-cultural God Play:

2.    Warrior or Ghost Plays – These plays centre on the warriors of the Gengji-Heike clan and often tell the stories of famous battles. Often ghost warriors appear and they relive their last battles. Here is a clip of a Ghost Play scene:

3.    Woman Plays – Plays that deal with women of the Heian Period (781-1189) normally portrayed as beautiful and in glorious costumes.

4.    Insanity Plays – Dealing with a variety of characters (often females) and showing different types of madness or insanity.

5.    Demon Plays deal with both good demons (brining blessings to humans) and others evil demons (bringing evil but they are usually subdued by humans in the end of the play).

Noh Play Structure

A Noh play normally has three sections or paths - Jo-ha-kyū      序破

·      Jo (slow, dignified and uses simple rhythms and movements)

·      Ha (pace is built and some sharper movements appear)

·      Kyu (short, sharp movements and gestures are indicative of Kyu)

So a Noh play may have the Dramatic Structure of:

In the opening Jo sequence we see the entrance of a subsidiary character (waki) and once he is introduced then he gives away the plot or his reason for being there. Then the waki character goes to travel somewhere and we may hear a travel-song (michiyuki), sung by the chorus who are positioned at the side of the stage. The waki then arrives at his destination. Then the main character or protagonist (shite), enters (sometimes accompanied by other characters. The characters talk and the whole plot of the whole play is revealed along with the themes and tensions that exist. The following clip has the opening Jo sequence at the beginning.

Drumming normally changes signal that the middle sequence or Ha has begun. The Shite dances a stylized set of actions or movement which re-enactments previous events. This is a kuse.

A Kyogen comic interlude is then performed by comic characters who speak in everyday, informal language. Sometimes Kyogen plays are also performed on their own outside their structure and place in Noh Drama. The following is a videoclip of a Kyogen sequence:

The final and most dramatic section is called Kyu and involves the protagonist appearing in his/her real form and a climatic dance.

Acting and Movement in Noh Theatre
The actors in Noh Theatre are male.
An excellent account of Noh training and performing can be found in Monica Bethe and Karen Brazell’s account, 'The Practice of Noh Theatre', (Schechner 1990). One activity which can be adapted to use with students is using Zeami’s Kyui nine degrees of artistry. While these levels are very complex in their original forms, I find I can give students a taste of these through using the image in the brackets to help them visualize and attain movements to give them a sense of the form. Levels 9, 8, 7 and 6 tend to be faster and with more movement while levels 5, 4, 3, 2 and 1 tend to slower, fuller and with less movement.
Some movements are made primarily with the feet and legs and other movements are made primarily with the hands and arms.

9.         The violent and corrupt style: the art of crudity and coarseness (a storm, crashing waves or a cut snake –
8.          The powerful and violent style: the art of strength and crudity
         (a moving mountain, a giant throwing trees, a bear)
7.          The powerful & meticulous style: the art of strength & delicacy
         (like Tai Chi movements, pulling & pushing, a crane taking off)
6.          The superficial but ornamental style: the art of faint patterns
         (painting a delicate painting, wind in the trees, a flamingo)
5.          The ample and precise style: the art of versatility and precision
         (a deer moving in the woods, firing an arrow)
4.          The style of the genuine flower: the art of the flower of correctness (a flower opening and following the sun)
3.          The style of the serene flower: the art of the flower of stillness
         (a flower collecting the last rays of sunlight or gentle rain)
2.          The style of the flower - high and deep: the art of the flower of profundity (a flower drawing energy from its roots as it opens gently)
1 .          The style of the marvelous flower: the art of the flower of mystery (a flower in stillness ready to bloom)

The Theatre and the Staging
Students can do research projects on the staging of Noh drama. Briefly, In Noh, a small stage leads out to the main stage in Noh via a catwalk. The main stage is normally 30 square meters in area. The following website has a lot of information and pictures of Noh Theatre staging.

Noh Masks and Characters
There are over sixty different basic types of Noh Theatre Masks and over 200 different kinds in use. I have found that Noh mask is good as a research process or students can make or paint their own masks.

Costumes in Noh Drama
Students can also research Noh theatre and even Kyogen theatre costumes. The costumes are often elaborate with silver and embroidery. The symbolism of the colours is another area for students to research. A good website for students to start at is:

Voice, Sounds and Music in Noh Drama
Music is integral to Noh drama. Students can research and experiment with the three elements of Noh: vocal (actors and the chorus), woodwind (primarily flute playing) and percussion (various drums). Try:

Noh Dance and Movement
Dance and movement is a crucial part of the Noh. Slow symbolic movements are often seen as stylistically characterizing Noh as a form. Some interesting websites for research are below but many of the exercises late concentrate on movement aspects.

Cross-Cultural Link to Japanese Theatre
In Australia, students at the upper levels or in IB Theatre programs might want to research connections in Western art and theatre which have connections to Japanese Theatre. I have had VCE students who have examined this and even IB Theatre students who have done it as research for their Extended Essay. Yeats was interested in Noh drama he wrote five 'Noh plays'. Brecht was influenced by Kabuki and some of his alienation techniques were developed from Japanese theatre techniques. The French theatre of Jacques Copeau and Jean-Louis Barrault were influenced by Noh Drama and both used it in their drama and in their actor training. Some modern plays of Yukio Mishima and Tadashi Suzuki have mixed tradition and modern, eastern and western traditions in their work. The work of these people or work in the area of cross cultural form and aesthetics is interesting.

Zen and Tao – Exercises in Noh Theatre
Noh Posture
The first aspect of Noh is to find the posture. Here is one description bu Noh performer and teacher Sakurama Kintaro:
''You should stand erect, your head perfectly straight, puling your thin back as far as possible. If you pull back your chin your whole body - not only the line of your neck - will be naturally straight. The shoulders should be relaxed, but the arms kept at the sides and held in a gentle arc so that the elbows will not sag-..You should let your strength flow into your abdomen without making any conscious effort to do so. As long as you maintain a steady posture your strength will naturally flow there… the small of the back, like the chin should be pulled back somewhat, but you must avoid protruding the buttocks…” (Keene 1966:71-72)

Noh Breathing Exercise
Begin by rocking the body slightly back and forth, slowly, in decreasing arcs, until you settle at your center of gravity. The mind is in the hara, mouth is closed, tongue pressed on the upper palate. Students should initially breath through the nose and experiencing the breath. Students then are instructed to steady and stabilize the mind by counting the breath. Each inhalation and each exhalation is counted. Inhale and at the end of the inhalation, count one. Exhale and at the end of the exhalation, count two. Count up to ten and then start all over again. Counting focuses the mind and the breath.
The Position of the Hands, Arms and Elbows in Noh
Men’s elbows should not touch their torso. Their should be room enough for a ball in the armpit. Women should actually keep the elbows in making actual contact with the body. Both men and women should put the hands on the upper thighs with the fingers lightly touching.

Noh Walking
Walk on the heels and slightly curve up the toes and bend the knees as little as possible when walking. Try to make contact with the floor for most of the time and make the step suri ashi or sliding in its motion. Forward walking always starts with the left foot and walking backward always starts with the right foot.

Mini Noh Theatre Using Symbolic and Stylised Movement
Noh theatre is all about finding slow, stylized, symbolic movements. I often use fans as a element and prop to help students find stylized movement. The movements should be done with a neutral face or students can always use a neutral mask during some of this work.
1.    I always get students to start with everyday gestures that have a symbolic aspect or are easily understood or ‘read’ but get students to do these actions slower than in real life and to hold them for longer. I get students to try ‘stop’, ‘come closer’, ‘be quiet’, ‘go away’ and ‘I love you’. Students then slow these gestures even more.

2.    Students then can be led to find ways to show emotions without using facial expression. The gestures should display or show the emotion in movement. Sometimes students find this difficult so I sometimes allow them to use facil expressions initially and then I get them to try to express the emotion without the facial expression. Some expression that work are: happiness, sadness, surprise, anger, fear, disgust, shyness and madness (craziness).

3.    It is at this point that I get students to use a paper fan (cheap Chinese fans can be found for about $2.00). I ask the students to repeat some of the everyday movements and the emotions they did earlier to see which work with the fan. Read out the following words and students do actions for each word.
Words: Old, young, pond, frog, pond, light, moon flower, shadow, creep, forest, winds, rage and leaves. 古い、若い、池、カエル、池、光、月の花、影、クリープ、森、風、怒りと葉。

4.    Get into groups of three, four or five people.
Come to the teacher and get a haiku poem.

As a group, you are going to develop a short Noh drama based on haiku poem.

One person should read the poem and the other people should act out or create movements for each line of the poem.

Please use the fans to help create objects, things, animals or elements in your performance.

Here are the haiku poems:

Frog poem (1680’s) 


An old silent pond

A frog jumps into the pond

Splash! Silence again.


Furu ike ya
kawazu tobikomu
mizu no oto


Barnhouse or Storehouse poem (1690’s)

by Mizuta Masahide


My storehouse burnt down,
There is nothing to obstruct
The moon-view


kura yakete sawaru mono naki tsukimi kana


蔵焼けて 障るものなき 月見哉

Over the Wintry Forest (1320’s)

by Natsume Soseki

Over the Wintry

Forest, winds howl in rage

With no leaves to blow.
It is important to make sure that students know that there is never a right or correct gesture. Emphasise that difference is good. With the use of paper fan (Chinese or Japanese) create a short movement sequence, which has a beginning, development and a conclusion, and a way of expressing either revenge, jealousy or lost love (of a child or lover). These are common themes of Noh. Ideally, Noh flute music should be played to accompany this exercise.

5.    The same exercises can be repeated using a fan but a student can do this while another reads a haiku or other Japanese poetry.

Some Other Ideas for Using Noh Theatre in the Drama Classroom
·      Read through Noh Stories or Japanese Folktales.
·      Use some stories from Noh Theatre in the classroom as the basis for movement pieces, narrated or Reader’s Theatre or full theatre pieces. Some stories are available on the following websites:
·      Analyze the Noh stories for their classical Noh Theatre structure jo, ha and kyu. Use Noh Theatre structural and stylistic elements and apply them to another ‘Western’ or ‘Australian’ play. More general principals or stylistic aspects of Noh Drama can be used for famous stories like those used in Shakespeare. Suggestions could include: ‘Antony and Cleopatra’, ‘Julius Caesar’, ‘Romeo and Juliet’, ‘Henry VIII’, ‘Jandamarra’, ‘Burke and Wills’ or ‘Gough Whitlam’.
       Try using the imagery and poetry of Noh Theatre stories or haiku as the basis for still images/frozen pictures or tableaux. These can also be done to summarize the plot or show the major sequence in the plot of lomger Noh Theatre pieces.
       Drums, percussion instruments or even using their own bodies to create percussive elements can be used to accompany a performance or even to create a Noh style music piece.
       Teach or imitate Noh Theatre movements from a video
       Make, paint and decorate masks in a Noh Theatre style
Do work to Noh Theatre music using fans. This can also be extended to use section from Noh Theatre plays.

Arnott, P. 1969. The Theatres of Japan. Macmillan. London
Baill, E.J. 1990. The Japanese Theatre – From Shamanistic Ritual to Contemporary Pluralism. Leider. New York.
Bowers, F. 1952. Japanese Theatre. Greenwood Press. Westport. Conn.
Brandon, J.R. 1997. Nō and kyōgen in the contemporary world. University of Hawaii Press. Honolulu.
Brazell, K. 1998. Traditional Japanese Theatre: An Anthology of Plays. Columbia University Press. New York.
Hare, T.B. 1986. Zeami’s Style: The Noh Plays of Zeami Motokiyo. Stanford University Press. Stanford.
Keene, D. 1966. No: The Classical Theatre of Japan. Kodansha International.Tokyo.
Keene, D. (ed.), 1970. Twenty Plays of the Noh Theater. Columbia Uni Press. NY.
Komparu, K. 1983. The Noh Theater: Principles and Perspectives. Translated by Jane Corddry. Weatherhill. New York.
Maruoka, D. 1975. (6th Ed.). Noh. Hoikusha Publishing. Osaka.
Mishima, Y. (1985). Five Modern No Plays. Translated by Donald Keene. New York: Vintage Press.
Nakamura Y. 1971. Noh: The Classical Theater. Translated by Don Kenny. Weatherhill. New York.
Rath, E. 2004. The Ethos of Noh: Actors and Their Art. Harvard University Asia Centre Press. Harvard.
Waley, A. 2009. Noh Plays of Japan. Tuttle Shokai Inc, New York & Tokyo.
Noh Music

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