Noh 能 or nōgaku 能楽 is a multifaceted art combining music, dance, chant, masked acting, and beyond them all a kind of cultural memory shared by the performers and the audience, which allows for details of the story to be left unsaid, only alluded to.
The best way to know this theatre form is unarguably through the performance itself – to experience the tempo of the actor’s movement on stage, to feel the chills at seeing the expression of the mask he is wearing, to hear the music of the flute and the rhythm of the drums – all hinting at the fact that you are witnessing an apparition from another world. The acting techniques and all the details of the performance have been handed out through generations of actors and the long history of this tradition gives noh its specific atmosphere.
On the other hand, a more accessible way of appreciating noh is to direct your attention the stories that noh plays allude to. Most of these stories seem to come from a distant, magical past. That is why the plays feature ghosts appearing in the dreams of those who come to search for remnants of that past.
In one play, the ghost of a woman who had been the wife of the poet Ariwara no Narihira comes at the water-well near the grave of her husband and remembers the time they spent together. As she looks into the well, instead of her own reflection she sees the face of the one whom she dearly misses. (Izutsu)
In another play the ghost of the famous warrior Minamoto no Yoshitsune himself comes before us to tell of the fierce battles during the Genpei war (1180-1185), which decided the course of Japanese history. Because he lived his life as a warrior, he is damned to spend the rest of eternity in the hell of the ashura, where the fighting never stops. By the end of the play, you don’t know anymore whether the scenes of war he described were of the battles between demons in hell, or of the cosmic battle between night and day, as you awaken from your dream. (Yashima)
Yet another play shows the story of a woman wandering the country in search of her child, who had been kidnapped. Her heart breaks with sorrow when she finds the child’s grave on the bank of river Sumida. She would do anything to see him again. In her distress she has a vision of him coming out of the grave to embrace her. But he is no longer in this world and all she can do is pray for his soul. (Sumidagawa)
These are all stories that have been performed for centuries, embodying the dreams of those who enjoyed them. Nowadays, even just by reading these plays, we cannot help becoming enraptured by the refined feelings that underlie them.
There is still one more way of getting closer to the world of noh, namely through the writings left by actors, such as Zeami (1363-1443). Written about six centuries ago, these treatises have been handed down through generations of performers until nowadays, when they are available in various languages. They contain a theory on acting, impressive in its consistency, taking into account that the art of noh was only at its beginnings in Zeami’s time. These writings are extremely detailed and practical, showing their author’s dedication to his art and the way he sought for the best technique to create and to hold the illusion on the stage for the enjoyment of the audience.
I wouldn’t know how to begin writing an introduction to the world of noh. What I can do is to recommend you the excellent webpage of Noh.com for more information. And also to invite you to follow the articles on noh theatre on this blog. Due to very objective reasons, there will be a lot of them, trust me 🙂