Noh; the classical Japanese performing art, replete with Buddhist sensitivities, which combines elements of dance, drama, music and poetry into one highly aesthetic stage art, is the oldest surviving form of Japanese theater.


Although Noh can be traced back to as early as the eleventh century, it developed into its present form during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries under the leadership of the distinguished performer-playwrights Kan-ami and his son Zeami.

Zeami, in particular, wrote numerous plays which are still performed in today’s classical repertory of some 250 plays. He also wrote a number of  secret works which explain the aesthetic principles governing Noh and give details on how the art should be composed, acted, directed, taught, and produced. Zeami's main rule of aesthetics was the‘flower'; an abstraction based on the effect to be felt between actor and audience only when a perfect balance of performance and reception has been achieved, a kind of mystic suspense. Noh flourished during Zeami’s time under the patronage of the military shogunate.


In general, the use of space and time is not portrayed realistically. Rather, there's a freedom of portrayal which requires the audience to use their imaginations.

Characters take only a few foot slidings through their song or chorus, the audience knows they have traveled a great distance.

They may appear on the stage nearly side-by-side, but the audience comes to understand that they aren't yet in each other’s presence. While this may be confusing for the first time viewer, for many people who come to understand these and other conventions, Noh creates a much more powerful theatrical expression than realistic theatre.


Noh won't be a performance of realistic theatre. Its movement is highly stylized and prescribed. While some gestures have specific meaning, others serve as an abstract aesthetic expression to convey the emotions of the main character.

Almost all of Noh plays can be described as emotional dance, though, sometimes there's very little movement as dramatic tension built mainly through narration, other times strong, vigorous movement. Movement takes place to the singing of the chorus or purely instrumental music. In general, deliberateness, brevity, suppression and abstraction are important features of Noh movement.


Often the plot of a Noh play recreates famous scenes from well-known works of Japanese literature . The typical Noh play is not a dramatic reenactment of an event but its retelling, portraying one all-encompassing emotion dominating the main character.

Whether jealousy, rage, or sorrow, all music, gesture, dance, and recitation are used to build the emotion to its final climax at the close of the play.

One or several secondary character, aside from the main character, is there only to observe the tragedy enacted by the main character.


Usually a play opens with the priest or other secondary character's entrance. He describes the scene which he wants the audience to imagine. The scenes are all actual spots in Japan, usually in his provinces.

Then the main character may enter disguised as a local person. He(or she) reveals to the secondary character the significance of the site before vanishing, returns dressed as his true self with a mask and embroidered robes.


Often the plays depict the return of a historical personage, in spirit or ‘ghostly’form, to the site of a significant event in his(or her) life.

A warrior might return to the battle field, or young woman to the scene of a love affair.

According to Buddhism of the fourteenth century, a person could not find spiritual release even after death if he's still possessed by some traumatic experiences of the past like a strong emotion or desire. To exorcise this emotion, the warrior might appear in his armor recreating the battle by a dance. The dance would reveal his humiliation at suffering defeat. So, this whole drama is kind of cathartic, the protagonist speaks about the past and thereby liberates himself or herself form it.


As Noh plays are extremely intense and reflect the artful use of emptiness and silence, every moment is choreographed and often symbolic.

Not one thing on the stage which isn't necessary at that moment. If the actor has a sword and drops it, a stage assistant will remove the sword as an unsightly object. Everything must be absolutely simple, clean.

In order to express something so abstract as an emotion, words are often inadequate. As the play progresses, then, dance and poetry are used to express the tortured heart. Other elements which contribute to an intensification of the mood are the bare simplicity of the stage which allows no distraction from Shite, and the gorgeous costumes of the main character himself.

The stylized movements also help to focus the energy on the emotion rather than on the individual personalities. The music which suggests another world may be described as other-worldly music. It's provided by a single flute, two or three different kinds of drums.





There're five categories, in order, gods, warriors, beautiful women, miscellaneous (notably mad-women or present-time) figures, and supernatural beings like demons.

During the Edo period, a full day’s program consisted of the ritual piece followed by one play from each category in the above order. One comedy(called Kyogen) would be presented between each.

Of the five categories, the women plays are the slowest in tempo but the most poetic, and of the highest level in expressing an aesthetic term suggesting quiet elegance and grace, and subtle and fleeting beauty.



The main character is called Shite who sometimes appears with one or more companion characters called Tsure. In many plays, Shite appears in the first half as an ordinary person, then vanishing, appears in the second half in his true form as the ghost of famous person long ago.

They are traditionally performed by the same actor. The secondary actor, called Waki, is often a traveling priest whose questioning to Shite will be important in developing the story line. He also often appears with companion called Waki-tsure.

An interlude actor called Ai also often appears as a local person who gives further background to Waki, thus to the audience, in order to understand the Shite's situation.



Makeup isn't needed. Delicately carved masks are rather often used by the Shite and/or the attendant. These masks are considered objects of superb beauty as well as powerful means of expression.

In general, any character being portrayed which is not a man of living in the present will wear a mask. Therefore all characters portraying women and old men wear masks as well as supernatural beings such as ghosts, deities, demons, and divine beasts.

Masks either have a more or less neutral expression, or portray a very strong emotion. The former, in fact, allows the mask a variety of expressions with the play of light and shadow on it as the actor changes slightly the tilt of the mask.

Even in roles in which an actor does not wear a mask, the sense of a masked face is evident, literally “direct mask.” For this, the actor does not use his face for realistic expression but rather for mask-like expression. Waki and accompanying never wear masks as they are meant to be men of living in the present-time in the play.

Mask helps to raise the action out of the ordinary, to freeze it in time.

For the Noh actor the mask of a particular character has almost a magic power. Before putting it on he'll look at it until he feels the emotion absorbed within himself. When putting on it, his individuality recedes and is nothing but the emotion to be depicted.



Costumes are elaborately made with gorgeously dyed silk and intricate embroidery. These reveal the type of character being portrayed and follow prescribed conventions as to their use.

Still, you find much variety. The detail of design, the color combinations, the richness of texture, and the strength of form give Noh its visual impact. All characters, whether rich or poor, young or old, male or female, are beautifully costumed.

During the early stages of Noh, the costumes were more modest, as they were using their everyday clothes to perform in. As Noh became favorable in the eyes of the aristocracy and military ruling classes, however, they began to receive more finely crafted kimono to perform and this gradually became the norm.  After that, the flourishing of Japanese culture coupled with great advances in fine arts led to even higher standards for costumes.




While Noh costumes do not “realistically” represent the characters they are portraying, the costumes can tell the audience a lot about the character. As there are a number of set rules in Noh regarding combinations of costume pieces, if one knows enough about these combinations, one can accurately tell the gender, age, social status, occupation and personality of that character.


The costuming process is complex. Rather than the actor putting on his own costume, two or three costumers are needed to sculpt the costume on the actor.



Chorus usually consisting of eight persons, sits at the side of the stage, functioning to narrate the background, the story and its mood.

It also sometimes describes the character’s thoughts and emotions or even sings lines for the characters. It often echoes the words of the characters, though, it may also speak for them.

Thus in a dialogue between Shite and Waki, chorus may say the lines of either of them. This's of course according to the script and not improvised.

Nothing on the Noh stage is improvised. The use of the chorus to recite the actors' lines make it seem as though the lines belong to no one;  actors are there but the emotion is not under anyone's control. It floats between actors and chorus and is further picked up by a sudden drum beat or drawn out by the flute.



Instruments consist of a transverse flute, a shoulder drum, a knee drum, and a barrel-shaped drum.

The rhythms and melody follow highly prescribed systems. One particularly unique feature is the use of drum calls; shouts or cries of the drummers, which serve as signals between the drummers as well as between the drummers and singers. These calls also add an important element to the sound texture of the performance, creating the mood and with the chant, establishing the tempo.

The drums give a very hollow thud while the flute has an eerie whistling sound. This eerie whisper is what draws the first actor out onto the stage and creates the other-worldly feeling necessary to Noh.