Noh: The World’s Oldest Musical Part 1: Rich Images Emanating from a Simple Stage


The History of Noh

 The origins of Noh date back to the middle of the fourteenth century—three centuries earlier than the time of the famous playwright Shakespeare in England. Based on comic imitation and acrobatics brought over from mainland China in the eighth century, the artistic dramatic style of Noh was perfected by Zeami (1363–1443), the eldest son of the popular actor Kan’ami (1333–84). When he was 12, Zeami performed with his father in front of the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358–1408), the supreme ruler of the time, who recognized their talent and provided them with lavish support. That was the first step toward the establishment of Noh. It was the time of the Renaissance in Europe. Zeami went on to become a playwright, producer, and actor. He left behind nearly 50 plays, which are still faithfully performed even today, 600 years later. These Noh plays can be said to be continuing to transmit the spirituality lying at the root of the Japanese.

Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

 A Noh play is a kind of opera or musical in which a small orchestra (hayashikata) consisting of a flute and three percussion instruments and a chorus (jiutai) explaining the scenes and conditions of the tale position themselves around the stage, and the story unfolds with the main actor, wearing a mask and resplendent costume, delivering his lines in a song-like manner and performing elegant dances. Noh is recognized to be the oldest total performing art in the world. Together with Kyogen, a humorous dialogue drama performed on the same stage, Nohgaku (Noh and Kyogen) was listed as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2008.

Stage Structure

 So, let us have a look at the special features of Noh. First, there is the structure of the stage. There is no curtain separating the stage from the audience, and it is an extremely simplified space. To the left as you face the stage, by the side of a passageway called the hashigakari leading from the dressing room to the stage, there are three small pine trees. Even though it is indoor, the stage has a roof—a legacy of days gone by when Noh was performed in independent buildings outdoors. Other than a picture of a large pine tree at the back, facing the audience, the stage has no decorations or props. The main stage, where the actors perform, is about six meters square.

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