Noh (能, literally means skills or talent) is a major form of classical Japanese musical drama and one of the oldest extant theatrical forms in the world. The early development of Noh lie in the entertainment of various kinds (ancient forms of dance or simply plays) performed at shrines and temples in the 12th or 13th century, and it became a distinctive form in the 14th century. Similar to western narrative drama, Noh is often based on tales from traditional literature with a supernatural being transformed into human form as a hero narrating a story. However, Noh performers are simply storytellers who use their visual appearances and their movements to suggest the meaning of the play rather than to enact it. The total effect of the Noh drama is less that of a present action than of a metaphor or simile made visual. Until 100 years ago, the audience was intimately familiar with the story’s plot and know how to appreciate the symbolic and indirect references to Japanese cultural history contained in the words and movements.
It is believed that Noh theatre is developed by Kiyotsugu Kan’ami (観阿弥 清次) and his son Zeami Motokiyo (世阿弥 元清). Zeami is often referred to as the father of Noh and developed many of the underlying principles of the Noh theatre in the 14th century, comparable in many ways to Shakespeare. For much of its history Noh drama was richly patronized by the warrior, priest and aristocratic classes.
There are five types of Noh plays, including the kami (“god”) play, shura mono (“fighting play”), katsura mono (“wig play”), gendai mono (“present-day play”), and kyōjo mono (“madwoman play”). A typical Noh play is relatively short (usually less than an hour) and by no means as complicated as Western theatre forms. The setting is generally a very simple place that has some special significance or meaning to the main character or actor (shite) and its dialogue is sparse. Essentially, there is no plot and everything on stage happens very slowly. There are five major Noh roles exists, including the shite (principal actor), the waki (subordinate actor) and the kyōgen actor (often serves as a narrator in the play). When an actor puts on his mask, he is transformed into that character. The Noh masks are used to express the fundamental human emotions common to Japanese dramas. Other than that, the story and the play’s “fuzei” (refined flavor or elegance) are the most important elements of the Noh theatre.
The stories are usually ended tragically and related to themes beyond the human realm in a space populated by gods, demons, and ghosts. And today, there are roughly 2,000 Noh texts that are known to exist and only 230 core works are still performed regularly.
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