Japanese Noh theatre

©︎Halca Uesugi

Japanese Noh theatre – subtle expressions of complex emotions

Japanese Noh theatre

©︎Halca Uesugi

Noh is a type of classical Japanese theatre that has been performed in the country since the 14th century CE. Combining elements such as dialogue, singing, dancing, musical accompaniment and the use of carved masks and elegant costumes, it is a distinctly stylized and sophisticated performing art that demands highly trained actors and musicians.

Noh evolved into its current form in the late 14th century through the work of playwright and actor Kan’nami and his son Zeami, who composed a significant number of plays that remain a part of today's classical repertoire. Endorsed by shōgun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, noh began to prosper, enjoying particular popularity among feudal lords (daimyō), eventually becoming the official performance art of the military government centuries later during the Edo period (1603-1867 CE).

Traditionally, a noh programme consists of a ritual play, okina, followed by five further plays, each featuring different casts of characters such as gods, warriors, women, or supernatural beings. In addition, comedic kyōgen plays are performed in between each part.

The main character of a noh play is called shite and the supporting characters are called tsure. While some of the human characters are depicted by actors with exposed faces, non-human characters such as gods, monsters, or kami (spirits or deities) are portrayed by actors wearing wooden masks.

Noh masks are delicately carved by hand from blocks of hinoki (Japanese cypress), and many of the masks used today have been handed down over centuries. At first glance, some of these masks appear to have a seemingly neutral expression, however, they can be used to convey a range of powerful emotions. By using subtle tilting movements of the head, highly skilled noh actors can employ light and shadow to reveal hidden emotions carved into the masks. There are said to be about 200 different varieties of noh masks. Unlike performers of kabuki, another type of stylized Japanese theatre, noh actors do not wear make-up.

In addition to movements of the head, noh is renowned for its slow and subtle body movements that are used to convey complex emotions. All movement, including posture (kamae) and manner of walking (hakobi), is highly stylized and visually impactful.

Other significant elements of noh theatre include costumes, chanting techniques and props. Noh costumes feature intricate embroidery and are made from dyed silk, signallling the character's identity and adhering to established customs regarding their purpose, whilst fans are typically used to represent various objects over the course of a single play.

Noh is performed on a stage with a set of distinct features, including a pine tree painting on the back wall, open sides and with a mainly minimalist layout. Each noh play features a group of musicians (hayashi), consisting of taiko drummers and a flute player, and a chorus (jiutai), whose chanting reveals information about the scene and the emotions of the protagonist.

Today, there are more than 70 noh theatres in Japan. In recognition of its cultural significance, noh was designated as an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO in 2008.