The oldest extant professional theater; a form of musical dance-drama originating in the 14th century. Nō preserves what all other important contemporary theater has lost: its origin in ritual, reflecting an essentially Buddhist view of existence. The performance looks and sounds more like solemn observance than life. The actors are hieratic, playing their ancient roles of intermediaries between the worlds of gods and men. To the bare stage come soberly dressed instrumentalists, the six-or-eight-member chorus, then the supporting character (waki), handsomely robed, often as a priest. Finally, out of the darkness at the end of the long passageway leading to the stage proper, evoked by drums and flute, the resplendently caparisoned (usually masked) leading character (shite) materializes. In strict rhythms, out of music, voice, and movement rather than the artifice of stagecraft, time and space are created and destroyed. Language is largely poetic. Costumes are rich and heavy, movement, even in dance, deliberate. The shite seeks intercession by the waki and, having attained it at the end, returns to the darkness freed of karma.
At the middle of the 14th century professional theater was based in Kyōto and Nara, and the actors organized into troupes under the patronage of Shintō shrines and Buddhist temples. They raised money, piously and commercially, with subscription Nō (kanjin Nō), their performances at religious festivals serving both to propagate doctrine and to entertain.
Some troupes presented dengaku Nō, others sarugaku Nō (see
The transformation of sarugaku into Nō, in basically the same form it has today, was accomplished by
In 1374 Kan'ami and Zeami performed before the shōgun
A civil war, the
Nō returned to the center of political power when in 1571 the Kanze troupe was summoned to the military headquarters of
During the Edo period (1600−1868) favored commoners were invited to performances at the shōgun's castle on auspicious occasions. They were forbidden to learn Nō music and dance, but they did nonetheless. As the economic life of the military class worsened in the 19th century, that of many commoners improved, and they were able to pay well for Nō instruction. Large numbers of them also became attracted to the popular
Tokugawa formalization of Nō also standardized the stage, and today that architecture is requisite for the correct performance of the plays. Although the stage is now usually inside a concrete building, it retains its original appearance as an exterior structure. The elaborate, carved, cypress-bark-covered roof of Shintō shrine architecture extends over the main stage (butai), which measures 6 by 6 meters (19.7 by 19.7 ft), as well as the side stage (wakiza), the rear stage (atoza), and the bridge (hashigakari). The bridge joins the main stage at an oblique angle, connecting it with the “mirror room” (kagami no ma), the actors' dressing room. Musicians (hayashikata) and actors enter and exit on the bridge. The only other entrance to the stage is a 1 meter (39 in) high sliding door (kirido), upstage left on the main stage, used by stage assistants (kōken) and the members of the chorus (jiutai).
Along the front of the entire structure, at audience level, is a strip of pebbles. In front of the bridge in this area are three equidistantly placed pine trees. A stylized pine tree, the only scenic background, is painted on the back wall (kagamiita) of the main stage. The entire structure is built of polished Japanese cypress (hinoki).
Five pillars supporting the roof govern the actors' movements. Upstage at the point where bridge and rear stage join is the comedian's pillar (kyōgen-bashira), for the comic actor sits there if he is to appear in the interlude of a serious play. Directly downstage of it is the principal actor's pillar (shite-bashira), for beside it the principal actor (shite) stops after his entrance on the bridge. At the downstage-right corner of the main stage is the “eye-fixing” pillar (metsuke-bashira), from which the principal actor, masked and unable to see clearly, takes his bearing. Opposite it, at stage left, is the waki-bashira, the pillar of the subordinate actor, who sits here during most of the play. Upstage from it is the “flute” pillar (fue-bashira), near which the flute player sits. All areas on the stage have their designations−“at the first pine tree,” “in front of the drum players,” “in front of the chorus”−used to describe movement and choreography. The actor's place on the stage at a given moment defines, for the audience, the progression of the play. In the absence of scenic indications, place is established by the words of actor or chorus. Characters standing at either side of the main stage may be separated by a province at one moment but in the same room the next. (Time can similarly be speeded up, slowed, or stopped.) Specific places may also be indicated by tsukurimono, usually a lightweight construction consisting of a bamboo framework wrapped in strips of white cloth, suggesting the outline of a real object.
All performers are male, and their organization is that established in the Edo period. Each of the five schools of Nō, mentioned earlier, trains its own shite, his “companion” (tsure), the child actor (kokata), the chorus, and the stage assistants. The waki and his “companion” have their own separate schools, such as Fukuō and Takayasu. Each instrument−the flute, small and large hand drums (see
The actors' children, trained in the traditional manner beginning at the age of seven, appear in performance in children's roles. Training is strictly by rote, vocally and physically. Each unit of movement, including the Nō style of walking in which the heel never leaves the floor, is called a kata (“form”). Some 200 kata exist, each having a name, but only about 30 are commonly used. A given kata varies little from one school to another. The kata for weeping, for example−no movement but the head slightly bowed, the left hand raised toward the forehead−is not subject to the individual actor's interpretation; it is the fixed way of illustrating the words of the text.
The expressiveness of the shite and the waki is enhanced by hand properties, among them letters, umbrellas, rosaries, and the bamboo branch signifying derangement, but most of all by the folding fan (chūkei). Closed, partly closed, or open, it may represent any object suggested by its shape and handling−dagger, lantern, rising moon. In other kata it represents not objects but actions−listening, moon viewing, sleeping. The abstract or pictorial design painted on the fan is conventionally associated with a type of character such as a ghost, old woman, or demon. Only the shite and waki use them. The other actors and the chorus carry fans (ōgi) bearing the crest of the school. The chorus place their fans, always closed, on the floor in front of them and pick them up to signal the beginning of a chant.
Only the shite and his companions wear masks, carved of wood and painted, though not in plays in which the characters they portray are living men. Each mask is a variation on a general type−holy old men, gods, demons or spirits, men, women−and in many plays the shite changes masks midway through the play, the second mask revealing the character's true being. The shite chooses the mask he prefers for the role, and his choice determines, by association and custom, his costume.
Many of the costumes (shōzoku) used today were constructed in the 18th and 19th centuries when the patterns, colors, and materials to be worn by a given character were systematized. Costume creates an effect of luxurious elegance but also a bulky, massive figure, that of the shite looming largest. This is effected by at least five layers of clothing, the outermost richly figured damask, brocade, or embroidered silk gauze. No garment completely conceals the one beneath it; surfaces and textures are multiple. Wigs, hats, and headdresses heighten the figure.
Okina, the oldest item in the repertory, consists principally of three dances extant in the 10th century that are prayers for peace, fertility (the basis of Shintō), and longevity. Scarcely a play, it is performed only on ceremonial occasions and always first on the program. The usual program today consists of two or three Nō plays with half-hour comic pieces,
The other 240 or so plays now performed, most dating from the 15th century, are grouped into five categories, corresponding to the five parts of the traditional Nō program called goban-date. Shobamme-mono (part-one plays) are sometimes called wakinō-mono or kami (god) plays. Nibamme-mono (part-two plays), or shura-mono, are often about men or warriors. Sambamme-mono (part-three plays) are also called katsura-mono (“wig” plays) and are usually about women. Yobamme-mono (part-four plays) are also called zō-mono (“miscellaneous Nō”) or “madwoman” plays. Some of these are referred to as “present-day” or “realistic” plays. Gobamme-mono (part-five plays) are also called “demon” plays, or kirinō-mono (“final Nō”).
Parts of the script are prose (kotoba) but most are poetry (utai). The prose is 14th-century upper-class Japanese; the poetry is taken from classical Chinese and Japanese collections, along with quotations from Buddhist texts. After choosing a subject, the playwright would then assemble his script out of appropriate pieces of ready-made poetry. The instrumental and vocal forms are also traditional. The plays embody the Buddhist concept that life is a continuum; thus the shite may be an ancient poetess, a dead warrior, a butterfly, wisteria, or may undergo transformations during the play (from woman to serpent, man to spider).
The basic aesthetic theory of Japanese music is that it must have three parts: jo, introduction; ha, exposition; and kyū, a rapid finale. The theory was in Zeami's time applied both to the entire performance, a series of five Nō plays, and to the individual play, the jo having one section (dan), the ha three sections, and the kyū one. Although the plays are not identical in structure, the basic arrangement of “transformation” plays, in which the shite is a different character on his second appearance, is as follows:
With the three or four musicians seated at the rear of the main stage and the six, sometimes eight, members of the chorus seated in two rows at the stage-left side of the main stage, the waki, often a priest, enters on the bridge and moves slowly to the main stage. There he pauses and identifies himself (nanori). Then, as he moves toward stage left, he sings a description of his travel (michiyuki). He reaches the down-left corner of the stage, announces arrival at his destination, and sits down beside the waki's pillar, marking the end of the jo movement.
The curtain at the end of the bridge is lifted from the bottom and the shite enters. He advances toward the main stage singing of the landscape or the season, about who or what he is, and stops at the shite's pillar. The second section of the ha movement begins with declaimed prose dialogue (mondō) between shite and waki. The latter, a stranger to this place, questions the shite about its significance and the event that happened here. In the third section the waki asks questions about the identity of the shite, either in prose or in a sung exchange (rongi or “discussion”). The shite is evasive, but pleads for the waki's prayers in a dance, his thoughts expressed by the chanting chorus (kuse). The shite moves onto the bridge and exits, while the chorus concludes the ha movement and the first half of the play with a chant (nakairi).
An actor from the kyōgen troupe who has been sitting to the right of the comedian's pillar comes forward onto the main stage and in colloquial prose explains, sometimes in dialogue with the waki, the subject of the play for the benefit of those unable to understand the ancient poetry. This passage is called
The kyōgen actor retires, and the kyū movement begins with the waki singing of his willingness to pray for the deliverance of the shite. Having changed costume and mask, the “after” shite (nochijite) reappears in his true being, identifying himself in song. He then dances out, in another kuse, the event that binds him to existence, or sometimes he sits motionless while the chorus describes it. A short, quick dance may follow. The shite goes to his pillar, sings the final lines of the play (kiri), and stamps his foot, indicating that the play has ended. He makes a slow, silent exit on the bridge, and the silent audience watches him return to the darkness from which he came.
For synopses of individual Nō plays see
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