I’ve always wanted to try my hand at a short one-case story in my Onmyouji series, featuring a Noh or Kabuki play, two of Japan’s most well-known traditional theatre forms.
Noh originated from the combination of Shinto-related dance and mime, with influences of dance from other parts of Asia. It uses poetic language, monotonous tones and slow movements, and the costumes are rich and elaborate. Noh plays are usually drawn from legend, history, literature and contemporary events, with themes relating to dreams, the supernatural world, and ghosts and spirits.
松岡明芳 / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)
Noh actors begin training at a young age and traditionally, performers have always been male, but recently, more female actors are being trained. The actors can be generally characterised as the following:
Shite– the leading character. May be a holy man, a deity, a demon, a spirit or a living man
Waki – the supporting actor. Always portrays living people.
Kyogen – performs interludes during plays
Hayashi – the musicians. They accompany the performance with four instruments: the flute (fue), the shoulder drum (kotsuzumi), the hip drum (otsuzumi) and the stick drum (taiko).
Jiutai – the chorus – sits to the left of the stage and assists the shite in narrating the story
Koken – stage attendants. They are dressed all in black so even when they are present on stage, the audience knows they are not part of the play. Assists the performers in various ways such as handing them props
Noh is traditionally performed outdoors but recently, indoor theatres have also become popular venues. One of the main features of the Noh stage is an independent roof that hangs over the stage, even with indoor theatres. Supported by pillars, the roof symbolizes the sanctity of the stage and is designed similarly to the roofs of Shinto shrines. Another characteristic of the stage is a bridge at upstage right that actors use to enter the stage. This bridge symbolises the connection between two worlds, illustrating the mystical nature of Noh plays and the spirits and ghosts that feature in them.
But the part I am most interested in, that is also a key element of Noh theatre, are the masks. The masks tells the audience what kind of character is being portrayed, and the shite is usually the only one who wears one. Masks are carved from Japanese cypress and can portray demons and spirits, or men and women of various ages. Actors can change the expression and present different moods by tilting the mask at various angles and using lighting effects. Masks are treasured and valued among Noh families and institutions, and if you consider all that history from being passed down from generation to generation, there are a lot of interesting stories that can be imagined…
Wmpearl / Public domain