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Noh: The God of Shirahige Shrine
From: Illustrations of Noh and Kyogen
Noh: The God of Shirahige Shrine

Noh plays can be roughly divided into two types: genzai no (realistic Noh) and mugen no (fantasy Noh).

In realistic Noh, the main character is someone actually living in this world, and the story proceeds according to real time. The main theme is the depiction of the inner feelings of a character placed in a dramatic situation, and the drama develops through a basically spoken dialogue. In contrast, the main character of a fantasy Noh is a god, demon, or ghost\someone who transcends this ordinary world. Most Noh of this type have two acts: act one, in which the main character appears in some disguise to the waki, who has come to visit some spot famous in history or literature or legend; and act two, in which the character re-appears in its true form, and usually performs a dance. It is because act two is fundamentally established as taking place within a dream or vision of the waki that this type is called mugen (lit., "dream and vision," or "fantasy") Noh.

Mugen Noh is based upon the gentle, lyrical beauty that is expressed by the word yugen. The scripts of fantasy Noh are mostly based upon themes from classical literature, have elegant main characters who can perform an appropriate dance, and are written in a flowing elegant style that makes much use of poetic diction. Those words and phrases are chanted. Noh chanting (utai) is fundamental to evoking the distinctive mood of Noh, with its special modality, quality of voice, and melody. The performer, ever searching to deepen the inner quality of his art, is limited to expressing his acting in a highly stylized series of stock patterns and movements (kata). Dance (mai) ranks next to chanting in being fundamental to Noh, but, unlike other forms of dance, it contains almost no realistic movements or imitative expressions. The dancer rides the music, especially the chanting and the rhythm, and "walks" around the stage in a sliding manner, sometimes waving a sleeve. In various scenes, the performer tries to express his inner feelings to the audience through highly refined movements. The ultimate expression of this is when the actor, sitting quietly upon the stage, and without moving at all, is able to display the quintessence of his inner acting skills. The chanting of the text and the rhythm of the music both work together to appeal to the imagination of the audience, making it aware of the presence of the actor upon the stage. That is the seed, and when an actor is successful, it is as though his flower has blossomed\a world that goes beyond reality and transcends time and space is created, and the audience is deeply moved.

The structure of the fantasy Noh was developed by Zeami. Zeami compared the fascination of his stage art with that of a flower in nature, and searched for perfection through both spirit and technique. "Flower" (hana) is what makes the audience have the feeling that what they are seeing is of interest or very rare. A flower in nature is of itself beautiful. But when attempting to concretely re-create the meaning of that beauty through a stage art, not all members of the audience who see it will think that it is beautiful. Therefore, Zeami developed a method of using that seed upon the stage, and then awakening the imagination the audience, so that a beautiful flower would blossom within their heart. It was in order to achieve this goal that fantasy Noh was created.

There are about 240 plays in the current repertoire of Noh, and the majority of them were written by the end of the Muromachi period.

Although Noh itself is divided into the two types of fantasy Noh and realistic Noh, the plays of Noh are divided into five categories, normally divided by theme or type of main character. This is based upon the guides for program formation decided by the Tokugawa shogunate when determining a 5-play program for a single day: the formal program would begin with Okina, followed by plays from the first group (God Noh), second group (Warrior Noh), third group (Woman Noh), Fourth group (Miscellaneous Noh), and fifth group (Ending Noh). This five-play program was planned such that the result was a well-balanced program lasting the whole day.

First-group Noh
Second-group Noh
Third-group Noh
Fourth-group Noh
Fifth-group Noh
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Copyright 2004, by the Japan Arts Council. All rights reserved.