Noh Theater

  • Peter Barakan

    Host

    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Matt Alt

    Reporter

    Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.

  • Reiko Yamanaka

    Main guest

    Director of Hosei University’s Nogami Memorial Noh Theater Research Institute, Reiko Yamanaka conducts research into the history and repertoire of noh. She also works to promote this venerable performing art.

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January 26, 2017

Noh Theater

*You will leave the NHK website.

An art that has been performed on stage for longer than any other in the world today, noh offers vivid insights into states of emotional unrest that may afflict anyone, anywhere, and at any time. Noh is not about a specific grieving, or jealous, or humiliated individual; it is about the grief, jealousy, and humiliation that are experienced as part of the human condition.

Noh's illustration of the strong attachments formed by the heart may be one factor in its demonstrated power to influence diverse representatives of different realms of artistic expression around the world. A short list of other factors would obviously include the fabulous costumes, the intriguing masks, the unique music, and the lean beauty of the performance space.

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The layout and appearance of the noh stage vary little from one theater to the next.

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The protagonist in this play is the spirit of a woman mourning a much-loved, but unfaithful, husband.

But for many people, noh can be a bit of a challenge. At the beginning of this edition of Japanology Plus, Peter Barakan confesses that when he watched noh for the first time, he fell asleep. While he is definitely not the first foreigner to have done so, it should be pointed out that even Japanese members of the audience doze off from time to time.

That's partly because at first, not a lot seems to be happening on the noh stage, and what is happening seems, to the busy mind, to be taking a very long time. Noh is by no means the only Japanese performing art to present time-consuming dramas. Other marathon traditions include all-night kagura sessions and all-day programs of bunraku and kabuki.

Noh wasn't always like this, it seems. Expert guest Reiko Yamanaka notes that what takes two or three hours to perform on the noh stage nowadays was once dashed off in just 30 minutes or so. But while it's undeniably fun to fantasize about a noh play being performed on fast-forward, it's also worth considering what might be lost as a result.
Not least of these losses would be something about noh that may well induce sleep in the first place: a sense of being awake in the presence of a dream.

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Matt does his best to follow the guidance of Hiroyuki Matsuno, a noh actor who also offers classes on noh.

Underpinning noh's slow-life appeal is the disciplined expertise of its performers. As Matt Alt discovers when he tries some basic moves, minimal is not the same as simple. Chanting, meanwhile, involves much more than merely producing the right words and melody. The drumming and flute-playing, too, require outstanding musicianship and a refined awareness of the intervals between sounds and between movements. Actors and musicians alike devote years to presenting noh with integrated impact.

If you can battle the urge to nod off, you may be surprised at how quickly you can become attuned to the noh experience. It obviously helps to know that a masked figure is not of this world, and that while an actor without a mask is portraying a regular human being, he will maintain a detached and neutral expression throughout.

But then it may occur to you that any emotion displayed by a "human" on stage would detract from the protagonist's mental unrest. And noh will begin to weave its subtle magic as the sparse set, subtle movement and evocative music combine to focus your attention on the elegant, troubled figure at the heart of the drama.

Your perception of what may have seemed stiff and stylized changes as you are drawn into the fabulous beauty of the robes, succumb to the percussive power and other-worldly whoops of the drummers, and engage with the emotional state of the protagonist. Differences separating cultures and individuals dissolve, your sense of being a spectator watching a performance fades away, and your mind's eye opens to the reality of the protagonist's inner turmoil.

Get that deep into noh, and you'll be wide awake all through the performance. You may even find it hard to get to sleep that night as you wonder what disturbed spirit of the past, awoken by the noh drama, will visit you in your dreams...

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Skillful use of a noh mask can convey a wide range of emotional nuance.

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Peter learns about the features of masks from noh actor Kanji Shimizu.

Also appearing

Kanji Shimizu

Noh performer Kanji Shimizu also organizes events combining noh with contemporary theater and modern dance, as well as other traditional performing arts from around the world.

*You will leave the NHK website.