What is Noh?

An Introduction to Noh by Richard Emmert



Noh developed into its present form during the 14th and 15th centuries under the leadership of the distinguished performer-playwrights Kannami and his son Zeami. Zeami, in particular, wrote numerous plays that are still performed in today’s classical repertory of some 250 plays. He also wrote a number of once secret works which explain the aesthetic principles governing noh and give details on how the art should be composed, acted, directed, taught and produced. Noh flourished during Zeami’s time under the patronage of the military shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu.


Later during the Edo period (1603-1868), noh became the official performance art of the military government. Feudal military lords throughout the country supported their own troupes and many studied and performed the art themselves. With the societal reforms of the Meiji period (1868- 1912), noh lost its governmental patronage and was left to fend for itself. Although it nearly died out, enough performers regrouped, found private sponsors, and began teaching the art to amateurs so that it slowly began to flourish again. Today, like many classical performance forms throughout the world, noh cannot be described as a popular art among the average Japanese. Yet its supporters are enthusiastic and its professional performers are highly trained and extremely busy performing and teaching throughout the country. There are today approximately 1,300 professional performers who make their living largely through performing and teaching noh.


Types of plays

There are five categories of noh plays. In order, these feature gods, warriors, beautiful women, miscellaneous (notably mad-women or presenttime) figures, and supernatural beings. During the Edo period, a full day’s programme consisted of the ritual piece Okina-Sanbaso followed by one play from each category in the above order. One Kyogen play would be presented between each noh. Of the five categories, the women plays are the slowest in tempo but the most poetic, and of the highest level in expressing yugen, an aesthetic term suggesting quiet elegance and grace, and subtle and fleeting beauty.

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The classical texts of noh follow a narrow set of parameters in terms of the rules of their construction. All classical plays are of either one or two acts, the latter generally with an interlude consisting of a long narration performed by a kyogen actor. The acts are made up of structural “scenes” called dan which in turn consist of smaller “segments” called shôdan.

The shôdan are the building blocks of a text and tend to be put together in similar ways in different plays, but overall there is considerable variation. The shôdan characteristics are both textual and musical in nature: some have a regular poetic syllable count made up of phrases of 7 and 5 syllables; others have an irregular poetic syllable count which breaks away from 7 and 5. There are also phrases with non-metered syllable counts, as well as those that are prose in nature.



Kinue Oshima as the Pagoda Nochi-shite. Photography by Clive Barda

Kinue Oshima as the Pagoda Nochi-shite. Photography by Clive Barda

The main character of a noh play is called the shite (pronounced sh’tay) who sometimes appears with one or more companion characters called tsure. In many plays, the shite appears in the first half as an ordinary person, departs, then appears in the second half in its true form as the ghost of a famous person of long ago. The former is called the maejite and the latter, the nochijite, or nochishite. They are traditionally performed by the same actor.

The secondary actor, the waki, is often a traveling priest whose questioning of the main character is important in developing the story line. He also often appears with companion wakitsure. An interlude actor called ai or ai-kyogen also often appears as a local person who gives further background to the waki, and thus to the audience, in order to understand the situation of the shite.



Takasago performed at the National Noh Theatre. Photography by Sohta Kitazawa

Takasago performed at the National Noh Theatre. Photography by Sohta Kitazawa

The music of noh involves the chant by the actors and the chorus, the purely instrumental music of the four hayashi instruments, and the combination of chant and the instruments.

The chant involves two singing styles: a melodic style called yowagin or wagin, and a dynamic style known as tsuyogin or gôgin. There is also stylized speech called kotoba. All chant can have an intensity which ranges from the powerful to the restrained creating a wide variation of vocal expression.

Purely instrumental music is used for the entrances of the actors as well as the dances by the main actor or actors which tend to be abstract representations of the feelings of the character.

The relationship between the drums with the flute is important as the flute melody either is in rhythmic sync with drum rhythm or has more of a non-matched free expressive association with the drums.

The combination of the drums and the chant meanwhile has a similar association as that of the drums and the flute; either there is a clear rhythmic sync or there is a non-matched free association. The former is particularly interesting because musical phrases often go back and forth between a regular metered music-centered rhythm and an irregular metered text-centered rhythm.



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Pagoda Hayashi (Instrumentalists). Photography by Clive Barda

Pagoda Hayashi (Instrumentalists). Photography by Clive Barda

Instrumentalists known as hayashi sit
at the back of the stage. They consist of a transverse flute (nohkan), an hourglass-shaped drum held at the shoulder (kotsuzumi), a slightly larger hourglass-shaped drum placed on the lap (okawa or otsuzumi), and a barrel-shaped drum placed on a small floor stand and played with two sticks (taiko). The rhythms and melody of these instruments follow highly prescribed systems.

One particularly unique feature is the use of drum calls (kakegoe), the shouts or cries of the drummers which serve as signals between the drummers as well as between the drummers and singers. These drum calls also add an important element to the sound texture of the performance, creating the mood and with the chant, establishing the tempo.

Pagoda chorus (jiutai). Photography by Clive Barda

Pagoda chorus (jiutai). Photography by Clive Barda


A chorus called jiutai, usually consisting of eight persons, sits at the side of the stage, functioning to narrate the background, and the story and its mood. It also sometimes describes the character’s thoughts and emotions or even sings lines for the characters.




Kinue Oshima. Photograph from the Oshima Family Collection.

Kinue Oshima. Photograph from the Oshima Family Collection.

A performance of noh is not a performance of realistic theatre. Rather, its movement (kata) is highly stylized and prescribed. While some gestures have specific meaning, others serve as an abstract aesthetic expression to convey the emotions of the main character. All of noh can be described as dance. Sometimes there is very little movement as dramatic tension is built mainly through narration.

At other times there is strong, vigorous movement. Movement takes place sometimes to the singing of the chorus or sometimes to purely instrumental music. In general, deliberateness, brevity, suppression and abstraction are important features of noh movement.



Costumes in noh are elaborately made with gorgeously dyed silk and intricate embroidery. These costumes reveal the type of character being portrayed and follow prescribed conventions as to their use. Still, there is much variety. The detail of design, the color combinations, the richness of texture, and the strength of form give noh its visual impact.

All characters, whether rich or poor, young or old, male or female, are beautifully costumed. The costuming process is complex. Rather than the actor putting on his own costume, two or three costumers are needed to sculpt the costume on the actor.

The four Pagoda masks carved by Hideta Kitazawa. Photography by Jannette Cheong

The four Pagoda masks carved by Hideta Kitazawa. Photography by Jannette Cheong


Makeup is not used in noh. Rather, delicately carved masks are often used by the shite main character and/or the tsure attendant. These masks are considered objects of superb beauty as well as powerful means of expression. In general, any character being portrayed which is not a middle-aged man living in the present will wear a mask. Therefore all characters portraying women and old men wear masks as well as supernatural beings such as ghosts, deities, demons, and divine beasts.

In general, masks either have a more or less neutral expression, or portray very strong emotion. The former, in fact, allows the mask a variety of expressions with the play of light and shadow on it as the actor changes slightly the tilt of the mask.

Even in roles in which an actor does not wear a mask, the sense of a masked face is evident. This is called hitamen, literally ‘direct mask’. For this, the actor does not use his face for realistic expression but rather for mask-like expression. The waki secondary character or accompanying wakitsure never wear masks as they are meant to be middle-aged (generally, men) living in the present-time of the play.



View of the bridgeway from the mirror room at the National Noh Theatre, Tokyo

View of the bridgeway from the mirror room at the National Noh Theatre, Tokyo

A traditional noh stage is constructed from Japanese Cyress (hinoki). The main part of the stage used in noh is a curtain-less square (5x4m) with a bridgeway (hashigakari) leading to it from backstage. At the end of the bridgeway there is a hanging curtain (agemaku) that swings up and back allowing the characters to enter and exit. Stages were traditionally outside and covered with a long sloping roof. From the late 19th century, they have been mainly moved indoors. These inside stages are open on two sides in a kind of semi-theater-in-the-round. There is no attempt at designing a realistic stage set. Rather, only symbolic stage properties are used.

The pine tree painted on the back wall of the stage (Oi-matsu) represents the tree through which noh was, by legend, passed down from heaven to mankind. In Japanese culture, the evergreen pine has come to be an important symbol of longevity and unchanging steadfastness.


Space and time

In general, the use of space and time is not portrayed realistically. Rather, there is a freedom of portrayal that requires the audience to use their imaginations. Characters take only a few steps and through their song or that of the chorus, the audience knows that they have travelled a great distance. Two characters may appear on the stage nearly side-by-side, but again the audience comes to understand that they are not yet in each other’s presence. While this may be confusing for the first time viewer, for many people who come to understand these and other conventions, noh creates a much more powerful theatrical expression than realistic theatre.

The last scene from Pagoda performed at the National Noh Theatre, Tokyo. Photography by Sohta Kitazawa

The last scene from Pagoda performed at the National Noh Theatre, Tokyo. Photography by Sohta Kitazawa