Asian Theatre

Japanese Noh Theater

The Origins of Japanese Noh Theater


The early origins of Noh theater were mostly folk-type forms of rustic entertainment:

Sarugaku: which was connected to Shinto rituals

Dengaku: a kind of acrobatics with juggling, which later developed into a type of song-and-dance, Chinese-derived dances, and recited and chanted ballads which formed part of the oral tradition of the people.

-By the middle of the fourteenth century, these various sources seem to have been combined into a form of theater recognizable to modern audiences as Noh, with elements such as:

  -grandeur and beauty in the plays

-a kind of abstraction in Noh which was centuries more advanced than in the west, and indeed it is discouraged to appear to imitate the external forms of people and objects too closely, concentrating rather on the essence or soul which the actor will attempt to recreate.


The Meaning of Masks in Noh

-the shite, the main actor, may wear a mask, as may his companions, or tsure.

This occurs when the main character is an old man, a youth, a woman, or a supernatural character.

-the shite will not wear a mask if his character is an adult male.

-Kokata, or boy actors, never wear masks, nor do waki, the secondary characters who appear first on stage to set the scene, and meet the main actor.

-masks are carved from wood, often cedar, which is then gessoed and painted

-since there are so many different types, it takes a certain familiarity with them to recognize specific types.

-the other ubiquitous prop is the fan, which in a symbolic theater such as Noh, can represent all manner of other objects, such as bottles, swords, pipes, letters walking sticks and so on.


5 general types of Noh:

-God plays

-Warrior plays

-Women plays

-Madness plays

-Demon plays



The Noh Stage

-a stage open on three sides, and with a painted backboard representing a pine tree behind.

-a walkway, called the hashigakari, leads onto the stage right position from an entrance doorway at right angles to the backboard.

-along the hashigakari are three small pine trees, and these define areas where the actor may pause to deliver lines, before arriving on the main roofed stage, which is about six metres square.

-ranged along in front of the backboard is a group of musicians whose instruments include a flute, a shoulder drum, a hip drum and sometimes a stick drum.

-the musicians are responsible for the otherworldly, strange music which accompanies dance and recitation alike.

-at right angles to the backboard, at extreme stage left, there is the chorus of eight to twelve chanters arranged in two rows and it is their job to take over the narration of the story, or the lines of the main character if he is engaged in a dance.



*In general, Japanese Noh plays are not very dramatic, although they are beautiful, since the text is full of poetical allusions and the dances, though slow, are extremely elegant.



 Major Writers:

Kan'ami Kiyotsuga (1333-1384): Komachi at the Stupa; Matsukaze 

Zeami Motokiyo (1363-1443): son of Kan'ami, he established the aesthetics on Noh, including yugen, the inner spirit behind the outward form. According to Wilson and Goldfarb, of his 200 plays, 124 are still performed; others scholars attribute fewer:  Koi no omoni (The Load of Love); Izutsu (The Well Cradle); Matsukaze (Wind in the Pines).


Binnie, Paul. www.artelino,com



 Bunraku(Ningyō jōruri): Traditional Japanese Puppet Theatre

-3 puppeteers: omozukai (manipulates the head and right hand); hidarizukai or sashizukai (manipulates the left hand); ashizukai (manipulates the legs and feet)

 -dates back to the 17th Century; named Banraku during the 19th Century (after a famous puppeteer)


Major writer: Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1632-1725): born into asamurai family, he went on to History (Heroic) plays and Domestic plays of such high quality verse that he has been compared to Shakespeare and Marlowe (Wilson and Goldfarb, 93); he also had an emphasis on ordinary people, perhaps lending to his popularity; his plays include: The Battles of Coxinga (1715), The Love Suicides of Amijima (1721), The Woman Killer and the Hell of Oil (1721).






KABUKI: Traditional Theatrical Arts

I. Background

-one of Japan's traditional theatrical arts.

-inception goes back to the latter part of the 16th century

-kabuki was cultivated mainly by the merchants in its early days.

-the fundamental themes of kabuki plays are conflicts between humanity and the feudalistic system (it is largely due to this humanistic quality of the art that it gained such an enduring popularity among the general public)

-no actresses whatsoever. All female parts are played by male impersonators known as onnagata.

*The players of the kabuki drama in its primitive stage were principally women, and with the increasing popularity of kabuki, many of the actresses began to attract undue attention from male admirers. The authorities felt that this would lead to a serious demoralization of the public and in 1629 the theatrical appearance of women was officially banned.*

-born at the turn of the 16th century, it incorporated parts of all the preceding theater forms of Japan.

-primary importance has always been placed on the actor rather than on any other aspect of the art, such as literary value of a play.




II. Repertoire

1. shosa-goto, or dance-drama, which is primarily and almost exclusively dance.

-actors dance to the full accompaniment of vocal and instrumental music.


2. Historical drama (jidai-mono)

-depict historical facts or present dramatized accounts of warriors or nobles. Many of them are heavy tragedies relieved only by momentary flashes of comedy.

-often call upon the hero to make the greatest possible sacrifices.

3. Domestic drama (sewa-mono)

-depict the life of the plebian class. The center of attention is focused upon the commoner.

-essentially a realistic story.


Classified as:

I) Plays adapted from noh and kyogen dramas

2) Plays adapted from the puppet theater (Banraku)

3) Plays intended for kabuki


III Aesthetic Elements

1) Formalized acting

- even in the realistic kabuki play, the most trivial gestures are frequently closer to "dancing" than to "acting." Almost every gesticulation is accompanied by music. There are many cases where such symbolization has been carried to the extent of abstraction, so that the formalized action of the character is no longer relevant to or even in direct contact with any rational interpretation of the role.

mie: in certain climatic moments the principal actor momentarily pauses in a pictorial posture and assumes a stare and crosses his eyes.


-the principle of speaking is not that of naturalism but of idealized elocution.

-lines in the kabuki plays, long monologues in particular, have a fascinating cadence half-way between singing and ordinary conversation.


2) Color scheme

-costumes and make-up in kabuki are generally recognized by theater people to be the most lavish and extravagant in the world.

-popularity of kabuki today is to a large degree due to its pictorial beauty. - -audience can derive full enjoyment from the wonderful spectacle of the superb color scheme unfolded dazzlingly before their eyes, even when they are not convinced of the plot of the story.


3) Acoustic elements

-music is an integral part of the art of kabuki.

-the principal instrument is a three-stringed instrument commonly called a shamisen.



-musicians are hidden from view in the left corner of the stage.

-music gives the cue for the actor's entrance; and to its accompaniment, the actor conducts his dialogue and performance.

In the case of a dance-drama, the musicians are in full view of the audience, and the music assumes a much more dominant part.

  -numerous kinds of audio-effects employed in a kabuki performance: such as wooden clappers signaling the opening and the closing of a kabuki play. It is repeated in rhythmical, staccato measures.

IV. Theater and Stage


1) Hanamichi, or flower-walk ramp

-passageway connecting the left side of the stage with the back of the hall through the spectators' seats at about head level of the audience. It provides a way for the actors' entrances and exits, in addition to the passages available at both wings of the stage.

-also constitutes a part of the stage. While making their entrance or exit via this ramp, the actors very often give one of the most important scenes of their performance.

2) Mawari-butai, or revolving stage

-First invented in Japan nearly 300 years ago, this device was later introduced abroad. It makes rapid changes of scene possible without interrupting the sequence of the plot.


3) Other aspects

-The proscenium of the kabuki stage is lower and much wider than that of American and European theaters. The stage has the appearance of a long rectangle instead of the nearly square form of theaters elsewhere.

-The curtain in the kabuki theaters consists of red-brown, black, and green cotton stripes, and is not raised as in the Western theaters, but drawn aside.


V. Actors

-primary emphasis upon the actor.

-every kabuki actor is required to have a fundamental preparatory training.

-makes it almost compulsory that a person who aspires to be a kabuki actor start his training from childhood.

-Japanese dancing and music are integral parts of such training.

-families of kabuki actors which go back as far as seventeen generations.

-under the feudalistic social system of the Edo period the veneration of family lineage was almost an unwritten law.

-In feudal times, kabuki actors, while popular among the general masses, held a very low social status.

-Today, however, their status has risen to such an extent that some of the distinguished actors have been elected to membership in the Academy of Art of Japan, the highest possible honor to be conferred on an artist.


kurogo (man in black): strange-looking figures, clad and hooded all in black handle properties on the stage while the curtain is open and serve also as prompters. They are not characters in the play and the audience is supposed to disregard them.






Courtesy of : The International Society for Educational Information, Inc., Tokyo




Beijing (Peking) Opera

-national opera of China.

- presents to the audience an encyclopedia of Chinese culture as well as unfolding stories, beautiful paintings, exquisite costumes, graceful gestures and acrobatic fighting.

- has an over 200-year history. 

-It is generally accepted that Beijing opera gradually came into being after 1790 when the famous four Anhui opera troupes came to Beijing.

-Originally, Beijing Opera was performed mostly on open-air stages in markets, streets, teahouses or templecourtyards. The orchestra had to play loudly and the performers had to develop a piercing style of singing, in order to be heard over the crowds.

-The costumes were a garish collection of sharply contrasting colors because the stages were dim and lit only by oil lamps.

-a harmonious combination of Grand Opera, Ballet and acrobatic display, consisting of dancing, dialogue, monologue, acrobatic combat and mime.


The Beijing opera band mainly consists of orchestra band and percussion band.

-The orchestra frequently accompanies peaceful scenes

-Percussion often follows scenes of war and fighting.

The commonly used percussion instruments include castanets, drums, bells and cymbals.

The orchestral instruments mainly compose of the Erhu, theHuqin, the Yueqin, the Sheng (reed pipe), the Pipa (lute) and other instruments.


The band usually sits on the left side of the stage.

Four main roles in Beijing Opera:




1. "Sheng" are the leading male actors

-divided into:

"Laosheng" who wear beards and represent old men,


"Xiaosheng" who represent young men,


"Wusheng" who are acrobats who play military men and fighters, and "Wawasheng" who play kids. These roles usually wear no facial paintings.


"Hongsheng", another category of "Sheng" whose face is painted red, mainly plays:

"Guanyu" (Chinese Ares) and

"Zhao Kuangyin" (the founder of the Song Dynasty: 960- 1279).


2. "Dan" is the female roles. Formerly, the term meant female impersonator. It is divided into:


"Laodan" are the old ladies


"Caidan" the female comedians.


"Wudan" usually play military or non-military women capable of martial arts.


"Qingyi" usually play respectable and decent ladies in elegant costumes.


"Huadan" represent lively and clever young girls, usually in short costumes.


3. "Jing," mostly male, are the face-painted roles who represent warriors, heroes, statesmen, adventurers and demons.



4. "Chou" refers to clowns who are characterized by a white patch on the nose. 


Facial Painting

Paintings are presentations of the roles of the characters. For example:


-a red face usually depicts the role's bravery, uprightness and loyalty;

-a white face symbolizes a sinister role's treachery and guile;

-a green face describes surly stubbornness, impetuosity and lack of self-restraint.

In addition, the pattern of the facial painting reveals the role's information too. In a word, the unique makeup in the opera allows the characters on the stage to reveal them voicelessly