Nō (能) – Japan’s ancient form of theatre

An attempt of an introduction

Nō-Bühne am Hatomori Hachimangū, Sendagaya

Nō stage at the Hatomori Hachimangū, Sendagaya

Eine deutsche Version dieses Artikels finden Sie hier.
A German version of this posting you can find here.

After I had the most inspiring experience of getting to learn a little bit more about a rather unusual topic of Japanese culture, I am attempting to travel down the slippery slope of trying to describe with words what actually cannot be described by words. On the occasion of a lecture at the “Artcomplex Center of Tōkyō” (you will find further details at the end of this posting) I made rather intimate contact with the topic this posting is devoted to: It is Nō (能 / のう) what this is all about – one of the oldest forms of theatre in Japan – and perhaps the most “Japanese” of them all.

There are people that get so desperate when faced by a Nō play that they compare it with western opera – although there is hardly a less fitting comparison. Also other ways to categorise Nō by western standards may – if you are lucky – just lead to misleading comparisons. One feels compelled to call it “formalism” (if that was an artform of theatre). But if one keeps in mind the meaning of the character for Nō (能) (which stands for “talent”, function”, ability”, “skill”), one is at least aware of the basic virtues needed for Nō plays.

Some malicious tongues say, Nō is nothing but a mixture of disharmonious singing, incomprehensible rhythm and “nothing” of a plot that can be seen on stage. As usual, those malicious toungues miss the facts by a mile. They are just being mislead by the basic simplicity (or better: minimalism) of Nō.

About the history:

Nō has been developed from popular forms of theatre in the Nara era (794-1185) and from ritual offering- and ceremonial dances and has reached the form which is basically being performed today in the 14th century. Very rightfully Japan is proud of this form of theatre that reached its perfection almost 200 years before Shakespeare. Nō was perfected by works of Motokiyo Zeami (世阿弥 元清 / ぜあみ・もときよ) (1363-1443), the son of very famous Nō actor and a favourite of the shōgun at the time. The principles of Nō had been codified by Zeami’s “Kadensho” (花伝書 / かでんしょ) (also called “Fūshi Kaden” (風姿花伝 / ふうしかでん) ) at the end of the 14th / beginning of the 15th century.

The fact that this form of theatre is also being appreciated beyond the borders of Japan is expressed by the fact, that Nō has been registered in the UNESCO list oral and intangible treasures of humankind (UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists) in 2001.

The about 200 different Nō plays that are still regularly being peformed usually cover subjects of Chinese or Japanese mythology. They are usually (very roughly) categorised into “divine plays”, “male plays”, “female plays”, plays of madness” and “plays of demons and spirits”.

Originally, Nō plays had an all-male cast – since the Meiji era (1868-1912) also female actors and artists are allowed.

The Nō stage:

The foremost feature of Nō stages is very simple: It is their simplicity! A Nō play does usually not require a lot of props and decoration. The Nō stage also does not know any curtain. As Nō plays were usually performed in the open in the old days, also today’s traditional Nō stage somehow imitates this “scene in the open”: It is usually located under a wide roof (like the roofs seen at temples and shrines in Japan) and open to three sides. Only the back of the stage is closed and graced by a decorative painting of a pine tree.

Traditionally, the stage is being entered from the left side via a narrow bridge, the so-called “hashigakari” (橋懸り/橋掛り / はしがかり). The close relationship between Nō plays and the Shintō (Japan’s indigenous religion) is also being documented by the fact that many Shintō shrines have their own Nō stages. As an example I’m attaching two photographs of the Nō stage of the Hatomori Hachiman shrine in Sendagaya (Shibuya, Tōkyō) (鳩森八幡宮 / はともりはちまんぐう) (click to enlarge).

And because it is of considerable fascination, particularly for those who are novices to Nō, let’s talk about one of the main features of Nō next:

The movements:

The plot of a Nō play is basically performed by means of “dances” (which the western eye may not recognise as “dance” at first sight), that follow strict rules for the patterns of movements and the positure of the actor. These patterns are called “kata” ( 型 / かた) and also (among other things) are ways to express emotions. Lets have a look at two of those “kata”:

The most important of the “kata” is the “kamae” (構え / かまえ), which can be translated into “positure” or “poise”. It is the basic positure of the actor during the course of the Nō play: The knees are slightly bent, providing a lower centre of gravity for the actor’s body. The upper part of the body is kept straight, the ellbows slightly bent to the outside, and in the right hand a fan is being held.

This posture is also being maintained during the most important movement pattern of Nō, the “hakobi” (運び / はこび), which is probably also the most impressive of a Nō dance. While moving across the stage, the actor does not lift his feet off the floor. Also during rotary movements the feet are not allowed to lose contact with the foor – the movement is carried out by sliding over the big toe and the pad. This “hakobi” is the movement that gives the Nō dance its very particular look and feel, because it makes the actor move almost magically. This impression is intensified by its slow speed.

Nō also gains its very special appeal by

The Nō masks:

The masks that are called “Nō-men” (能面 / のうめん) are usually made of lightweight wood (preferably the wood of the Japanese cypress) that has been prepared for further processing by keeping it fresh and salt water for several years. The shapes and characters of the masks that are used today have been developed until the late 17th century. Characteristic for the Nō masks is the fact that they are considerably smaller than the human face (among other things, this has the effect of making the actor look bigger than he or she actually is).

These masks themselves are works of art. Some of the many hundred different masks are only used for one or two particular Nō plays. The great number of masks results from the need to represent different characters (e.g. young and old men, young and old women, demons, spirits etc.) on stage, but also from the need to portray a multitude of emotions in a strictly codified way. And there is another special feature these masks offer: Many of them give the actor the opportunity to express completely different moods by changing the tilt of the mask.

As an example below you can see the mask of “Shōjō” ( 猩々 / しょうじょう), a legendary, manlike Chinese creature that has a particular fondness for alcohol,  which was the main character of a dance that was performed during the lecture.

Nō-Maske des Shōjō (猩々) / Teruhisa Ōshima (大島輝久)

Nō mask of Shōjō (猩々) / Teruhisa Ōshima (大島輝久)

Nō-Maske des Shōjō (猩々) (Innenseite) / Teruhisa Ōshima (大島輝久)

Nō mask of Shōjō (猩々) (backside) / Teruhisa Ōshima (大島輝久)

The musical instrumentss:

Nō plays are usually accompanied by a flute, called “Nōkan” (能管 / のうかん), and three drums – the so-called “Hayashi Ensemble” (能囃子 / のうばやし). For the drum part usually three kinds of traditional Japanese drums are being used that are rather similar in the way they are built and played:

  1. The Ōtsuzumi (大鼓 / おおつづみ) – usually played by leaning it against the hip
  2. The Kotsuzumi (小鼓 / こつづみ) – also known as “shoulder drum”, and the
  3. Taiko (太鼓 / たいこ).

Should you wish to learn more about these drums, have a look at my posting related the workshops of Miyamoto Unosuke (宮本卯之助 / みやもと・うのすけ). Here is the link.

Nōkan (能管) (Flöte) /Akira Kitaku (規宅聡)

Nōkan (能管) (flute) /Satoshi Kitaku (規宅聡)

Ōtsuzumi (大鼓) / Eitarō Ōkura (大倉栄太郎) & Kotsuzumi (小鼓) / Yōko Ōyama (大山容子)

Ōtsuzumi (大鼓) / Eitarō Ōkura (大倉栄太郎) & Kotsuzumi (小鼓) / Yōko Ōyama (大山容子)

Taiko (太鼓) / Noriyoshi Ōkawa (大川典良)

Taiko (太鼓) / Noriyoshi Ōkawa (大川典良)

Taiko (太鼓) / Noriyoshi Ōkawa (大川典良)

Taiko (太鼓) / Noriyoshi Ōkawa (大川典良)

The singing:

As Nō is not just a dance performance, but also a singing performance (hence, frequently misinterpreted as a kind of opera), also the singing (performed by the actors and a choir) plays an important role during the course of a Nō play. Characteristic for Nō singing is its limited tonal range. It emphasises less on the melody, but is – together with restrained use of expression on the one hand, a large amount of allusion on the other – more an element to transport the poetic content of the play.

The costumes:

The traditional costumes the actors wear on stage are a true feast for the eyes. Frequently preciously old Kimono are being used for Nō plays – and even those robes that had been re-created during the Meiji era (1868-1912) based on old patterns, have become “priceless antiques” in the meantime and are regarded as treasures. The lavish textiles made of silk and brocade are, on the one hand, in the permanent danger of being worn out due to their prolongued use, on the other hand, particular care is taken of these gowns, e.g. by carefully fitting it to the actor and by trying to avoid the fabric from getting in touch with the actor’s sweat (there is usually no way to chemically clean those Kimono). Wearing the robes is an elaborate process – and requires the other players’ or a dresser’s assistance. (click to enlarge the photos below)

Well, that’s about the first rough impression of the key elements of a Nō play and stage. Should this have inspired further interest in this most exotic form of play, let me also add…

One of the important addresses for Nō play in Japan:

The modern building of the National Nō Theatre (国立能楽堂 / こくりつのうがくどう) that was built in 1983 and offers space for an audience of up to 591 people.

4-18-1, Sendagaya, Shibuya-ku, Tōkyō 151-0051

Nationales Nō-Theater (国立能楽堂)

National Nō Theatre (国立能楽堂)

How to get there:

Take the JR Chūō/Sōbu line (JR中央/総武線 / JRちゅうおう/そうぶせん) to Sendagaya (千駄ヶ谷 / せんだがや) and from there about 5 minutes walk in western direction.


Take the Toei Subway Ōedo line (都営地下鉄大江戸線 / とえいちかてつおおえどせん) to Kokuritsu Kyōgijō (国立競技場 / こくりつきょうぎじょう) and also about 5 minutes walk in western direction.

Details of the Nō lecture:

The lecture was held on the 6th of December 2014 at the Tōkyō Artcomplex Center. The motto of the event was “~産み出し、紡ぎ、継続し続ける。~” (very roughly translated with: origin, development, continuation). Members of the cast were (amongst others):

  • Teruhisa Ōshima (大島輝久): dance, music, singing (舞囃子), he was also the moderator of the lecture
  • Kinue Ōshima (大島衣恵): main actress in the excerpt from the play “Shōjō” ( 猩々 / しょうじょう) and during the demonstration of the dressing procedure
  • Satoshi Kitaku (規宅聡): flute (笛)
  • Yōko Ōyama (大山容子): Kotsuzumi (小鼓)
  • Eitarō Ōkura (大倉栄太郎): Ōtsuzumi (大鼓)
  • Noriyoshi Ōkawa (大川典良): Taiko (太鼓)
  • Allan West: Stage decoration – folding screen painting

One Response to Nō (能) – Japan’s ancient form of theatre

  1. […] englische Version dieses Artikels finden Sie hier. An English version of this posting you can find […]

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