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Japanese Noh Drama: History and Places

Updated on July 16, 2012
Noh Stage in Audience Hall, Nishi Honganji Shoin
Noh Stage in Audience Hall, Nishi Honganji Shoin

The History of Noh Drama

Noh drama was developed from a number of simpler art forms into a complex and intricate dramatic art by Kannami and his son, Zeami. These simpler art forms included sarugaku (meaning "monkey music"), and dengaku (meaning "field music"). Sarugaku was adapted from Chinese-inspired variety shows in the 8th century that in Japan got endowed with a religious character, while dengaku came from early agricultural religious rituals.

By the 14th century these two forms had grown very much alike and both assumed a greater dramatic element enjoying great popularity with varied audiences. To these raw dramatic materials, Kannami added a kusemai - a popular rhythmic dance section, - and conjured complex philosophical undertones.

In 1374 Kannami and his 11-year-old son performed before shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, builder of the Golden Pavilion, who was so impressed he granted them his personal patronage. Later, Zeami composed a book on his father's teachings about the art, entitled Writings on the Transmission of the Flower, the flower being used as a metaphor for the essence of Noh artistry.

Beside his book, Zeami buildt up a large body of theory that gave Noh drama legitimacy in the eyes of educated audiences. He emphasizes mimesis tempered by stylization and grace, and prizes the evocation of complex suggestion and mystery. Of the approx. 250 Noh drama plays currently performed, Zeami wrote about 25-50. By the Momoyama period, Noh drama had become a highly esteemed form of art, with warrior aristocrats constructing Noh stages in their courts for private entertainment.

North Noh Stage, Nishi Honganji Shoin
North Noh Stage, Nishi Honganji Shoin

Early Noh Drama Stages

Painted screens showing scenes in the Heian Capital depict late Muromachi period Noh drama stages in an open-air setting, roofed but not walled. The same stands true for the North Noh Stage at the Shoin of Nishi Honganji, which dates back to 1581, being the oldest Noh stage in existence. The Shoin also has an outside stage at the south, dating to later times. Another such stage can be seen in the Screen of the Jurakudai Castle and Palace, just beneath the donjon.

No stage and Ohiroma, Ninomaru Palace, Nijo Castle
No stage and Ohiroma, Ninomaru Palace, Nijo Castle

The Interior Noh Stages at Nishi Honganji

By the Momoyama times, Noh drama had been brought indoors and performed on indoor stages. You can find two such stages in the Nishi Honganji temple - one in the Audience Hall and one in the Shiroshoin.

Built in 1618, the Audience Hall is a spacious area designed in elegant Shoin style, adding up to 9-by-9 bays with the hall and a raised jodan of 9-by-2 bays. Along the back wall, one can see decorative doors, a nice alcove, and staggered shelves. The space is awe-inspiring with birds carved beautifully in the transoms and Chinese historical scenes shown on the walls.

The floor of the hall is usually covered with tatami mats, but when a Noh play is staged the central mats are removed only to reveal a polished wooden floor beneath. The dressing room (gakuya) can be accessed through a diagonal entrance causeway at the south end of the room, opposite the jodan.

Modern Noh stages often feature a low door (kirido) at the right side of the rear stage for stage hands to enter and exit unobtrusively during a performance to straighten the robes of the main actor or help with an onstage costume change.

The interior of the hall has but dim light and the actors in their gold-embroidered robes perform scenes of ghostly mystery.

Noh Drama Plays For The Emperor

According to old records, the programs of Noh performed before the emperor began at 10 o'clock in the morning with the traditional Okina and Sambaso pieces, followed by nine more plays, including the god play Naniwa and the warrior play Tamura, then ending at about 6 o'clock in the evening with a performance of Shojo, a standard finale piece, danced by the head of the Kanze school of actors, the school descended from Kannami and Zeami.

Nō Theatre Performance "Tamura", Dance of the Ghost.


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    • Daisy Mariposa profile image

      Daisy Mariposa 6 years ago from Orange County (Southern California)


      Your articles are of such a professional quality. I really enjoy reading them.

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      Linda Bilyeu 6 years ago from Orlando, FL

      Interesting hub Haunty! I learned something new today...not sure what. Joke! Keep on hubbin'!!:)

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      Sondra 6 years ago from Neverland

      Another amazing Hub by my friend Haunty. Really - You just go and go and go and your writing only gets better and better. Myself...well, I have to repeat words hahah