Noh Dancing

Don Herbison-Evans ,

Technical Report 335 (1989), updated 28 May 2017
Basser Department of Computer Science (now School of Information Technologies)
University of Sydney, Australia


Just as there are a number of different forms of theatre in the west (opera, ballet, drama, vaudeville, etc.) so there are several forms in Japan (Kabuki, Kyogen, Shimpa, etc). One of these, the Noh theatre, has a place in Japanese society that bears some analogies to the place Shakespearian drama has in the West: the dramas and their stories are well known; they were composed several hundred years ago (Kusano, 1978,105); they are in the archaic language of that time (Ito, 1979, 271); were performed only by male actors until recently (Kusano, 1978, 118); assume other customs, dress, habits, and society of that time; are based on older myths and legends current then; and probably survive because of the allegorical illumination they cast on the timeless concerns of the human condition.

Noh theatre differs from Shakespearian theatre in being some two-hundred years older, having a wider repetoire (about 240 pieces, compared with 38 for Shakespeare (Shakespeare, 1937)), having a more balanced mixture of music and dance embedded in the drama, using masks for many of the actors (Kusano, 1978, 108), and of course: being in Japanese.



The Noh pieces which are performed today were written by a small number of dramatists. Of these, Zeami (1363-1441) was the greatest, being responsible for 100 of the 240 Noh pieces. His father, Kanami, also wrote many of the pieces (Kusano, 1978,108). Zeami's son in-law, Zenchiku, was also a Noh master and contributed some pieces (Ortolani, 1983, 147). The close family inter-relationship of these authors was conditioned by Japanese society at that time, in which a son had an obligation to follow his father's occupation. This was augmented by the custom of Master artists of adopting their major proteges into their family (Japan, 1975, 6).

The aesthetics portrayed in Noh are: understatement, abstraction, refinement and suggestion (Mason, 1972,122). These arose from the three major influences on 14th century Japanese life: (A) the feudal code of ethics of the Samurai warriors; (B) the elegant manners of court nobles; (C) the asceticism of Zen Buddhism. Despite this partly Buddhist basis, many of the stories in Noh restate the myths of the other popular religions at that time. This religious duplicity in Noh has parallels again in Shakespeare. In his rigorously Christian society, plays like `A Midsummer Night's Dream' presume a panoply of non-Christian deities.

The stories in the dramas can be traced back in some cases to the 8th Century, and even before that to origins on the Asian mainland. For example in "No Dojoje", a spurned woman follows the man she loves to a temple where she hides under a bell. She turns into a serpent and burns her way through the bell to reach him. Various endings occur in various versions of the myth at various times. This myth can be traced to Korean and possibly Indian origins. It has also been suggested that the myth dates back to a period when Japan was matriarchal (Hoff, 1983, 32)

The dancing in Noh has a variety of origins (Yasuji, 1983, 99):

  • Kusemai: Mime performed by Buddhist monks while reciting poetry.
  • Kagura: Shinto dances using the fan, and the particular form of the musical ensemble, used to invite the Gods to be present;
  • Eunen: dances of the Buddhist priests at their festivals.
  • Dengaku: music and dances from the fields and the rice festivals;
  • Bugaku: imperial court dances of 12th century Japan;
  • Furyu: popular songs and dances of the 14th century, performed intermittently, to avoid pestilence or achieve salvation;
  • Sarugaku: acrobatics and magic tricks.
  • It has been suggested that these have even older origins in Mai and Odori. Mai means "turning", and refers to a dance form reputed to have been done by itinerant priestesses in Medieval times, circling a shrine, and attempting to encourage spirits to come down and possess them (Ito, 1979, 271). Odori means "leaping" and refers perhaps to the leaps of male Shamans when they attained the ecstatic frenzy of possession (Ito, 1979, 272).


    Noh is performed on a stage approximately 19 feet square, made of cyprus wood. It has pillars at the corners, and two low platforms: one across the back of the stage, and one across stage left. To stage right is a covered walkway ending in a curtain, through which performers do their entrances and exits (Kusano, 1978, 106).

    There is no scenery except for a painting of a pine tree on the wall at the rear of the stage. This tradition dates back to the time when Noh plays were performed in the open at shrines which usually had a pine tree nearby. For a similar reason, there is a narrow row of plants around the stage and three pine trees in front of the walkway. There is also a tradition of illuminating the plays with bonfires when they are performed in the open at night (Kusano, 1978, 105).

    There are sometimes simple pieces of scenery on stage, often just symbolic frameworks, suggesting a house or boat or whatever is needed. Often, the audience has to imagine the scenery from a description by one of the players (Kusano, 1978, 108).

    The players use a variety of stage properties: e.g. fans, sticks, swords. Many also wear wooden masks. Many of the masks in use today were made many hundred years ago (Kusano, 1978, 108). The masks are carved in a subtle way so that with small changes of inclination they appear to show different emotions.

    On the platform at stage right sit the chanters. On the platform at the rear of the stage sit three or four musicians. Their instruments are flute, small drum, medium drum, and large drum (Kusano, 1978, 108).

    The costumes are adaptations of those of the 15th century. Some, particularly those of characters representing the nobility, are sumptuous, with gold and silver thread (Kusano, 1978, 108).

    The players belong to one of three groups: Shi-te, Waki, or Kyogen (Kusano, 1978, 110).

    The Shi-te group consists of the Shi-te himself and various other players. They often wear masks, particularly for female roles. The Shi-te is the main character of the play. Often he changes clothes between the two acts of the play to accommodate a metamorphosis (e.g. human into ghost, peasant into noble) associated with the story.

    The Waki group never wear masks. They are the foils of the Shi-te.

    The Kyogen present a monologue during the interval between the acts, to give the Shi-te time to change costume. They also present small comedies of their own between plays.


    Dances are an intrinsic part of many Noh plays. The dances vary somewhat in style depending on the situation in the plot. Generally, they are solo, and several minutes in length. The dances are generally slow by balletic standards, with no gymnastic quality. Virtuostic leaps and spins are considered vulgar (Zarina, 1967,191). The ideal technique is such as to be hidden by its perfection, with no effort being seen by the audience (Ito, 1979, 267). This ideal has been espoused in western classical ballet (Lieven, 1980, 84).

    Nevertheless, leaps and turns do occur in Noh dancing (Ito, 19979, 270). The path in space, both of parts of the body in gesturing, and of the whole body in locomotion, is cursive, unlike the linear movements often used in ballet. Noh dancing is often meant to be smooth and free flowing, even meandering. This has been related to the curved forms in Japanese script, compared with the angular forms of the Western alphabet (Ito, 1979, 273). This suggestion, however, ignores the cursive script which Western writers use when writing by hand.

    The movements (Kata) can be classified into different forms (Shigetoshi,1963,29),although this is artificial because of the importance of the rhythm (Ma) as the movements meld into each other. The transitions have to be subtle and alive, pulsed by the dancer's rhythm. The rhythm should grow and then fade, like a flower blooming from a bud and then withering. The patterns of movement in the Kata are not fixed, but depend on the dancer's creativity. Some are so subtle that they are impossible to teach. Although training starts at age six (Ortolani, 1983, 147), it has been said that true beauty in dance cannot be achieved under the age of fifty (Gunji, 1983,88).

    The Basic standing position is with the torso tense and slightly tilted forward, the back being lengthened. The arms curve downward and the knees are flexed, giving Noh dance its essence of earthiness. There is no equivalent of elevation and the sense of lightness found in ballet (Wolz, 1976,26). This may be because the dances refer to Japanese Gods who came down to earth (Ito, 1979, 268), whereas in the West the Gods are imagined still to be in heaven above the sky.

    The earthiness of the stance has also been ascribed to the importance of rice in Japan. Rice planters adopt a similar posture to the basic Noh stance (Gunji, 1983, 88).

    The diminished importance of the legs might be ascribed to the long robes (reaching to the floor) worn by many Noh characters which obscure movements of the legs. The robes make it pointless to try to do any interesting movements with the legs. This contrasts with the development of the legs as aesthetic instruments in the Argentine Tango: where it has perhaps reached its highest ideal. Despite having to carry the load of the body, in Argentine Tango, the bodies and arms are held fixed, and all the attention is on the feet and legs.

    In Noh dancing, development has moved into another direction: subtlety. One of the Kata is to dance without moving. This has been likened to the flat surface of a turbulent stream (Gunji, 1983,88). An equivalent in ballet might be the legendary pose on arabesque of Fonteyn which seemed to have an ongoing motion (Gunji, 1983,88).

    There are many other Kata: viewing some object or scene, holding a shield, riding a horse, weeping. One is stamping. For improved acoustic effect, large pots are placed under appropriate parts of the floor when plays are performed containing this movement (Wolz, 1976,26).

    Perhaps the most important Kata of all is walking. For walking, the body is held in the basic position, then the foot is slid forward on the flat, at the last moment being pivoted up then down on the heel. This may be contrasted with the forward walk step in International style Ballroom Dancing (Moore, 1974,9) in which the heel is slid forward of one foot as the heel of the other is lifted. The walk is so important in Noh dancing that the highest compliment that can be paid to a player is that his walking is good (Wolz, 1976,26).


    The specialisation of the theatre into separate arts of drama, opera, musical concerts and dance performances had not occurred in Japan when the Noh theatre became established. Nevertheless, dance has become highly developed in the Noh theatrical tradition. It is difficult for someone trained in the Western traditions to appreciate much of the aesthetic content of Noh dance.

    An understanding of the sociological and evironmental conditions in 15th century Japan can assist in this regard. Trying to cross this cultural chasm for an Australian can cause reflection on how Western dance forms are tied to the current Western environment, and perhaps to seek that abstraction of pure human movement: dance itself.

    masks by: Masuda Houshun


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