Roots (Origin)

Noh and Kyogen originated from a performing art brought to Japan from China during the Nara period (8th century).

Introduction of Sangaku

“Shinzei kogaku zu”
(The University Art Museum, Tokyo University of the Arts collection)

Exchanges between Japan and other countries flourished during the Nara period. In particular, various performing arts came to Japan from the Chinese continent. They included the plebeian entertainment called Sangaku, comprised of miscellaneous types of performance such as acrobatics, magic, song and dance, music, and mimicry, and was popular with the people. Sangaku assimilated with existing Japanese performing arts, and gradually performances of comical mimicry, short skits, and other genres increased. This became the prototype of Kyogen, and the name “Sangaku” changed to “Sarugaku,” meaning comical.

Linkage with Temples and Shrines

From the middle of the Heian period (8th to 12th centuries) to the Kamakura period (12th to 14th centuries), Sangaku’s songs and dances were passed down as a form of entertainment performed for religious rites at temples and shrines. In particular, a performing art called “Ennen” staged at temples featured scripted art performances, including theatrical performances as well as singing, and is said to have influenced what we now know as Noh. At temples, Sarugaku groups also became responsible for performing incantation-style performing arts that were supposed to dispel evil and bring in good fortune. It is believed that this led to the development of “Okina,” which is considered a sacred piece even now.

Interaction with Dengaku

Sarugaku and Dengaku
“Shokunin zukushi utaawase (Shichijuichiban shokunin utaawase) ” Copy of the original manuscript
(Tokyo National Museum collection)

At around the same time, there was another thriving performing art called “Dengaku,” which consisted mainly of dance but also included acrobatics similar to Sangaku. Both Sarugaku and Dengaku were performed by specialized performance troupes known as “Za.” They also performed dramatized performing arts called “Sarugaku Noh” and “Dengaku Noh.” Sarugaku evolved while vying with Dengaku that had become very popular with court nobles and samurai.