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What is Noh Theater?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 02 November 2016
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Noh theater is a stylized form of Japanese theater performed since the 14th century. The style is known for its slow and exaggerated movements and highly dramatic stories. The art of the form is detailed and guided by subtle philosophical principles. Noh theater remains popular throughout Japan and performances can occasionally be seen in America and Europe.

The stage used in Noh drama is largely comprised of a roofed stage supported by four pillars made mostly from cypress wood. Sets are not used, and the only ornamentation is a painting of a pine tree on the back wall of the stage. The pine tree tradition dates back to the time when religious plays were held outdoors, and powerful spirits were once believed to inhabit the trees in order to watch the plays and grant blessings to the performers and audience. The stage also has a narrow bridge leading off to the right, used for entrances and exits.

The roles in Noh theater consist of four major types. The shite, or hero, often appears as a ghost who becomes a human, or a human who becomes a deity. The waki is the rival or antagonist of the hero. Kyogen roles are used for short comedic interludes during intermissions or breaks. The fourth category of role is the hayashi, musicians who accompany the play with flutes and drums. Other more minor roles in Noh theater include kōken, or stage hands, and the jiutai, or chorus members.

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Costumes in Noh theater are elaborate and extremely symbolic, but generally the symbolism is only understood by students of the form. Masks are worn by some characters, including shite, female characters, very old or young characters, demons, and gods. Many of these masks are carved with neutral expressions, so that body language and gestures can imbue the mask with different emotions. All characters, regardless of role, carry traditional fans.

Plays used in Noh theater are broken down into several categories based on the mood of the piece and themes of the play. Frequently, supernatural events are incorporated. In what experts consider to be the most well-known Noh play, Dojoji the ghost of a wronged woman sneaks into a monastery to take revenge on the man who betrayed her. Trapping him inside a huge bell, the ghost transforms into a giant serpent that coils around the bell, heating it and burning the man to death. Dojoji is such a popular play that almost every Noh stage is built with a hook in the ceiling for the bell.

A great deal of theory has been written about how Noh should be performed. One of the guiding principles is called jo-ha-kyu. This concept suggests that, in a five-act play, act one should begin slowly, acts two, three and four should build tension, and act five should explode with a climax before quickly concluding.

Another popular tenet of the form is that actors and musicians should never rehearse together. This is meant to fulfill an ideal called ichi-go ichi-e, which literally translates as “one time, one meeting.” This concept suggests that each performance should be in some way spontaneous and transient that can only exist for one moment, once in a lifetime.

Noh theater performers traditionally begin training at age three, and continue to train for most of their lives. Traditions are carefully maintained from generation to generation, often handed down through family dynasties of performers. Because of the care given to honoring the history of the form, watching a Noh theater performance is believed by some scholars to be like stepping into feudal Japan.

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