Noh is, along with kabuki and bunraku, one of Japan’s iconic traditional performing arts. All have a long history and are performed by highly skilled individuals. However, it would be a grave mistake to assume that noh is the same as kabuki or bunraku.
Although kabuki and bunraku are certainly difficult for most people to understand, they do in fact have a flexibility and popularity that allows for the creation of works such as a recent kabuki adaptation of the world-famous manga “One Piece” complete with hit theme song written by folk-pop act Yuzu. In contrast, noh plays today often include a pre-show explanatory lecture which makes them seem accessible on the surface, but once the performance begins it’s not uncommon to find oneself drifting in a sea of total incomprehension and emerging from the finished performance without having understood a thing.
Over 650 years, noh has developed into an ideal of artistic expression. Throughout its history, it has been loved by the rich and powerful, and has never tried to make itself more accessible to the masses. So, what is the best way to approach noh theatre? The young soke (head) of the Hosho School offered some practical advice.
”Noh is not entertainment”
“First of all, it’s important to understand that noh theatre is not entertainment, per se. Of course, I’m not talking about true entertainment but the contemporary idea of entertainment defined as something that touches your heart. Entertainment that provides a surprise or emotional release and connects to a feeling of something larger. In that sense, noh theatre is the complete opposite, and it would be a mistake to describe it as a sort of Japanese opera or Japanese musical.
I often refer to a concept that was first put forward by the musician Brian Eno: ambient. I think that noh could be categorized as ambient culture. Ambient work stabilizes the mind. This is similar to visiting an art museum or a place of worship. Say, even if you see a wonderful piece of art in a museum, you don’t clap, do you? You don’t see everyone cheering together. Each person finds their own way of enjoying it. In other words, an important characteristic of noh is that it’s very much a personal experience.
I think it resembles the role mass plays in the church. On Sundays, people go to mass and they can relax and think about their families and jobs in peace. It’s not so much a faith as it is a way of enriching daily life. Watching noh is similar.”
This young leader of the noh world equates noh to ambient music that aims to quiet and free the listener’s mind without imposing the creator’s interpretations or themes.
Although there are many different noh plays, the players don’t stage them to be easy to understand, and even the protagonist, who is surely suffering from dramatic mental conflict, keeps his emotions concealed behind a noh mask and costume. This prevents viewers’ emotions from getting easily stirred-up, and creates a sort of margin for people examine their own questions in a calm, plain state. Both the mission and the value of noh is in how it welcomes viewers into a deep spiritual dimension.
Established in the 14th century, noh was said to be popular with government officials in the premodern age, and from the modern age it was picked up by financial industry leaders, which seems to show that both groups understood and skillfully utilized the ambient effects of noh.
The relationship between noh and Japan’s great leaders: Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu
“Noh theatre is a master of innovation. For example, from the warring states period to the Edo period, noh itself didn’t change but the way the three government leaders used it did so dramatically.
Oda Nobunaga (1534 – 1582) was a leader at the height of the warring states period and he was no stranger to death.Going to war with a fear of death makes dying in battle even more likely, so he used noh theatre as a sort of mindfulness exercise in order to overcome that fear.
In the time of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537 – 1598), the great war had already ended, so he used noh as a propaganda tool to flaunt his own power, making prefabricated noh stages and so on.
Then, after Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543 – 1616) brought the whole country under his control, he promoted noh as a part of the branding for different regions. Thanks to this, noh theatre developed with distinctive regional characteristics in places such as Kaga and Sado. In this way, the role of noh theatre changed dramatically within a period of not even one hundred years.