Japanese Noh Theatre: Ancient Masked Performance, Unmasked!
Noh is to modern Japanese theatre what Shakespeare is to English theatre, and then some. It is the oldest form of masked theatre (like Kabuki, Noh opts for the “theatre” spelling of the word) in the world. Slow at times, performed in archaic Japanese, and almost exclusively by single sex groups, Noh plays portray Japan as it once was, in snippets. Human interaction with nature and gods abounds. Good often triumphs against evil, but not always. Dance is ever present. Just like good whiskey, Noh is a voyage of self-discovery. The only difference is that whilst the memories of whisky may fade in minutes, memories of Noh will stay with you for the rest of your life.
What is Japanese Noh Theatre?
The history of Japanese Noh drama can be traced back to the 13th and 14th century. The world of Noh, expressed in roughly 250 plays, emerged mostly from the minds of a long-dead father-son duo of Kan-ami and Zeami, about whom not too much is known. While their identities are largely a mystery, their legacy endures into the present: The Japanese folklore they wrote about is still recited today on the stage.
During the over 600 years since it came into being, Noh theatre was for the most part a form of entertainment sought out and reserved exclusively for the ruling upper classes. That it is termed a form of “masked” theatre is slightly deceiving, as only one man on the stage at any one time is masked. The two or perhaps three other performers never are. Also interesting to note is that Noh plays are never rehearsed by the troupe as a whole. Noh is not unlike a particularly fine 25-year-old single malt. No two mouths are the same and no two interpretations of the same play on a Noh stage ever come out as identical either.
The music and chants of Noh—with origins in ancient forms of court music—added to its mysticism, lent weight to mood in plays performed countless times since the era of Kan’ami and his son.
Few commoners had seen it when Japan emerged from feudalism in the late 1860s. Its tales of gods good and bad pretending to be mortal and only revealing themselves in dance form were, like the Greek and Roman gods of old, one day bound to filter down to the regular Japanese man in the street.
And now, fortunately, they have.
Noh Drama Goes Modern, while Remaining True to Itself
In the modern-era, Noh is as it has always been. It is just as mysterious as encapsulated in tales of gods, good vs bad and the like, but today performances are increasingly being put on in modern Japanese, using modern day theatres equipped with interactive video screens to help the modern viewer understand what is being said.
It is not the plays that have changed, but rather the method of delivery. For example, the transcripts of many plays are available online in English. Yet, by refusing to compromise in the chants, the music—drums and flute—and for the most part the language forms used, Noh manages to maintain the link to its upper-class roots whilst also reaching out to a broader audience.
This drive for a more universal, even international appeal has taken some interesting directions over the years—including the resurrection of the proverbial “King of Rock n’ Roll.”
Elvis Lives on—at Least in Noh Theatre!
“Blue Moon over Memphis” was the 2015 performance of modern, male-female Noh troupe that really put Noh on the international map in the modern era. Performed by Theatre Nogaku, a group of non-Japanese led by a Tokyo area university professor-cum-student of Noh for over 40 years, and with female members, the bringing together of Elvis Presley and a 600 year old theatre form was met with all-round praise from both the Japanese community—including some professional Noh performers—and the resident expats for whom Japanese Noh theatre has long been a passion.
While you are more than welcome to seek out intriguingly modern Noh performances like the one above, it is highly recommended to see a classic play first. But to do that, you need to know where you can buy tickets. As you’ll see, Tokyo’s National Noh Theatre is but one of several options.
National Noh Theatre Tokyo Is Just one Place to see a Performance
Pre-visit, do your research—there is a lot of information out there on the web. Check the National Theatre and National Noh Theatre web pages for information on plays, performance dates and ticket prices. Oftentimes it is in English. Allow around 7,000–8,000 yen per person for stage front seats. There are usually only 15–20 rows and a little less for stage-side and diagonal seats.
In addition to the National Noh Theatre site, if you have a Japanese speaking friend or assistant, ask them to check the Kita School & Kanze School website. Both schools have theatres in Tokyo and both have numerous performances year round. They are smaller than the main national theatres and a little cheaper, but any performance in the national theatres invariably features these actors so why not go to the source.
Be warned that most Noh plays are several hours long with a brief comic interlude performed by Kyogen actors to lighten the mood before the second half. Taro Kaja, who embodies a famous Kyogen character is the name given to the most prominent actor in any given Kyogen performance.
Like a Fine Whiskey, Noh Theatre Only Gets Better with Each Attendance
Remember that first single malt you really appreciated? Perhaps the peat, the smoky taste? The aftertaste? Clear your mind and see Noh, hands down the best single malt you have ever had… and then some. Noh may be an acquired taste, but it reaches out to everyone. Reach out your own hand and grab a ticket—you will not regret it.
If you’re interested in discovering more about Japan’s rich traditional arts and culture during your stay in Tokyo, we invite you to read through our many Japanese Culture articles available on our Tokyo Guide for Expats.