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A Lecture on the Noh Play

• Most people have heard of Japanese noh play but really don’t know exactly what it is. Mariko Anno, Ph.D. gave a lecture about noh play on September 19 at the Arlington Heights Memorial Library. The event was hosted by the Chicago Japanese Club.
• Mariko Anno earned a Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology from Tokyo University of the Arts and a doctoral degree of Musical Arts in Flute Performance and Literature from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research explores the musical aspects of traditional and contemporary noh. Currently, she teaches at Tokyo Institute of Technology.

What is the noh play?

• The noh play is a musical which was born in the Muromachi era (1334 – 1600). It is a composite art, which includes music, songs and dances, and has reflected social conditions in each era.
• The noh play was listed as UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage in 2001. Kabuki and bunraku (puppet play) were also listed in 2003 and 2005 respectively.

• The history of the noh play

• The noh play was created by Kan-ami (1333 – 1384), and developed by his son Ze-ami. Among 250 pieces of noh plays, Ze-ami wrote about 50 of them.
• The noh play was called Saru gaku at that time, which included comical and acrobatic performances of San gaku and harvest prayer of Den gaku.
• The noh performing groups competed against each other and tried to drew audiences’ attention by focusing their interests, so the tempo of the play was much faster than present days.

• Most stories of noh plays were drawn from the Tale of the Genji, the Tale of the Heike, and Tales of Ise. The subtle and profound world of noh was created. Mugen noh was also created in the era. Mugen means dreams and phantoms. With the protagonist, the audience enters a dream of the counterpart (waki) and visits a certain place and learns about the people, incidents, and resentments in the place.
• Shogun Yoshimitsu Ashikaga was fond of noh and Ze-ami and a great patron of the noh play.

• In the Edo period (1603 – 1868), the noh play became official ceremonial performance in samurai society, and people had a little opportunities to see it. The postures became more important factor in noh, and the movement became slower.
• In this era, kabuki and bunraku were created and became popular among the people. Many stories in kabuki and bunraku were drawn from noh.

• After the Meiji Restoration, noh players lost the shogun’s support and had a hard time surviving. Although the Meiji Emperor supported noh, it was far less than the Tokugawa Shogunate.

• Presently, shinsaku-noh (newly created noh) and English noh have been performed in addition to the classical one. The first English noh “At the Hawk’s Well” was written by William B. Yeats, who was inspired by noh play, and premiered in 1916. The piece was imported to Japan in the late 1940s and rewritten as a shinsaku noh “Taka no Ido.”
• In the present days, topics of the English noh are employed from the Western world, and the lyrics are sung in English.

Category of noh

• The noh play is divided into five categories
• Waki noh: gods are central characters, such as a god of pine tree. Waki noh is called shobanme-mono.
• Shura noh: most stories describe the people who are enduring mental hardships in shura-do. Shura noh is called nibanme-mono.
• Kazura noh: most stories focus on women. It is called sanbanme-mono.
• Zatsu noh: pieces that do not fall into other four categories. Many stories are of desperation, infatuation, a revengeful ghost, and others. It is called yonbanme-mono.
• Setsu noh: spectacular scenes that impress audiences. Tsuchi-gumo and Funa-benkei are popular pieces. Anno recommended to see setsu noh. It is called gobanme-mono.

Noh stage

• The main stage has four pillars, and especially the left pillar is called “metsuke-bashira”, the eye-attaching pillar. It serves as the main guiding point for the masked actors whose vision is limited.
• Hashi-gakari, the bridgeway, is attached to the left side of the main stage. Actors enter and exit along the long bridgeway, which is also an important performance space.
• Three pine trees are set along the bridgeway. The tree closer to the stage is the biggest and called the first pine. The third pine is the smallest; thus the trees create a sense of distance.
• The back wall of the main stage is called kagami-ita, mirror board. A pine tree is painted and serves as the backdrop for all noh plays. One theory said that the pine tree on the back wall was a gift from a god.
• The stage setting is very simple because the noh play creates an imaginary world in the mind of each audience member.

Shite and Waki

• Shite is a protagonist, and waki is a counterpart. Waki takes an important role to guide a noh story. Neither shite nor waki speak. Instead the jiutai-kata, lyric singers sing dialogues. Shite and waki’s hand props also help in understanding the characters. For example, the winner’s side holds a fan, on which is painted a rising sun in pine trees; on the other hand, the loser’s side holds a fan, on which is painted a sunset with the ocean waves. Thus, characters of the Heike hold a fan with a sunset.




Mariko Anno, Ph.D.