Noh Theatre, precursor to Kabuki

I don’t know if you have ever been to a Kabuki show, or seen Kabuki on the TV, but almost everyone interested in Japanese culture have heard of Kabuki. There is even an old game for the Nintendo Entertainment System called “Kabuki Quantum Fighter”, where you play as a Kabuki actor, fighting his way through a digital world. You know, your normal game story line….

However, Kabuki is actually not the most traditional form of Japanese stage performance. It has taken a lot of influences from an older art form, that is still performed to this day: Noh (能, “skill, talent”).

春日神社ー篠山ー翁奉納P1011774

Noh developed from traditional popular, folk and aristocratic art forms. The art form Noh has today was essentially developed during the Muromachi Period (1336-1573), under the patronage of the Ashikaga Shoguns (the first shogunate in Japanese history). Noh is primarily performed by men, and it is customary in Noh that the performers don’t rehearse together until a few days before the public appearance. This gives Noh a distinctive feel, and follows a principle that’s known as “ichi-go, ichi-e”, or “one meeting, one chance”.

One of the more amazing points of Noh is the masks (能面 noh-men, or 面 omote). Carved out from a block of Japanese Cypress, and then painted with natural pigment, these masks can be very lifelike. But the really interesting point is the fact that in different angles and different light, the same mask can portray many different expressions.

Three pictures of the same female mask showing how the expression changes with a tilting of the head. In these pictures, the mask was affixed to a wall with constant lighting, and only the camera moved.

Three pictures of the same female mask showing how the expression changes with a tilting of the head. In these pictures, the mask was affixed to a wall with constant lighting, and only the camera moved.

All performers in Noh, actors and musicians alike, all have foldable fans, which in many cases acts as stand in for any handheld weapon or tool that the character might be using at the time.

If you are interested in Noh, and it’s later cousin Kabuki, be sure to visit a play when you are in town. If you have access to a TV here in Japan, NHK sometimes send Kabuki and Noh performances. If you don’t find yourself in Japan at the moment, I am sure you can find something on YouTube as well.

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