A Thriving and Classical Theatre Form

Under the patronage of the shogunate, Noh and Kyogen became performing arts for the samurai class.

Momoyama Culture and Hideyoshi

“Kitano ennohzu byobu” detail

“Kitano ennohzu byobu” detail
Momoyama period
(National Noh Theatre collection)

Noh began to lose momentum due to the decline of the Muromachi shogunate but was protected by the warlords of the Sengoku period (15th to 16th centuries). Of particular note is Chancellor of the Realm Toyotomi Hideyoshi who had plays made starring him as the protagonist. Hideyoshi guaranteed the status of the four Yamato troupes and granted them territory. He also undertook major reforms, including reorganizing other troupes into the four troupes. Under the influence of the Momoyama culture that flourished with the growth of commerce and industry in Kyoto and Osaka (“Momoyama” is the name of a region in Kyoto), Noh costumes became ever more splendid thanks to advances in technology, coupled with trade that provided access to an array of supplies. Around this time the stage format was established, and most of the Noh mask types were decided. In fact, the form of Noh that continues to this day was mostly finalized during this period.

Ceremonial Art for the Tokugawa Shogunate

“Machiiri onoh haiken no zu”

Townspeople and samurai gather to watch a Noh performance on a Noh stage in the castle grounds.
“Machiiri onoh haiken no zu”
Yoshu Chikanobu
(National Noh Theatre collection)

In the Edo period (17th to 19th centuries), the Tokugawa shogunate went further with the policy of the Toyotomi family of preserving Noh, and established Sarugaku as the official ceremonial entertainment for the shogunate. In addition to the four Yamato troupes, a new school was added to the list of Noh performers. Feudal domains in the regions in turn invited actors to perform for them exclusively, and Noh and Kyogen developed into performing arts of the samurai class. The troupes were given a stable status and economic foundation. Meanwhile, the troupes were demanded to improve their techniques and pass on the tradition to their successors. In Kyogen, which has a strong improvisation component, differences in repertoires and performance styles began to be observed by school, and scripts gradually came into usage.

Rise of Chant Books and Shimai Dance

“Shinkaisei oozouho manyou koutai senshuuraku”
(Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University collection)

By becoming the ceremonial art of the shogunate, opportunities to see Noh and Kyogen became limited for the general public. Still, interest in Noh and Kyogen ran high among the wealthy people and offered a way to pursue cultural refinement. Performances were sometimes held within the precincts of Edo Castle and at other locations that were open to the public. By this time utai was already familiar to people of a range of classes. During the Edo period, a number of chant books containing Noh verses were published and supported this trend. Furthermore, more people began to learn the shimai, in which excerpts of a Noh play are danced without wearing a mask or costume.