An Introduction to Japanese Nō Drama

The dramatic art of Nō (sometimes written “Noh”), or Nōgaku, originated in Japan around the 14th century.

Although the art form owes it origins to an older Chinese form called sangaku, which came to Japan from China during the 8th century, the rigid discipline and technical aspects of a Nō performance are uniquely Japanese. In fact, many people consider Nō to be an entirely, and uniquely, Japanese dramatic form.

Nō is a form of play composed of chanted verses, some of which are spoken by solo actors and others by a chorus. The play is accompanied by four musicians: three drummers and a flutist. Some of the actors wear special, stylized masks–many of which have been passed down from performer to performer (or troupe to troupe) for hundreds of years. In many cases, the masks are considered sacred.

16B17 Noh public domain

Many of the popular Nō plays performed today originated during the medieval era, and although the language of the plays themselves can be difficult for modern audiences to understand (even those who speak Japanese), the subject matter of the plays is often derived from familiar legends, histories, or medieval texts. The audience is often familiar with the story being told, and can follow the (limited) action even if the words are sometimes difficult to understand.

The standard Nō drama contains two acts, and most of the stories revolve around one of five themes: gods, demons, warriors, women (in Japanese, also called “katsura mono” or “wig plays”), and the catch-all “miscellaneous” category (which often contains stories about angry ghosts, insanity, or other topics that don’t fit easily within one of the other genres).

During the height of its popularity (in the medieval era), only male performers could appear on the Nō stage, with the female roles being played by men of many ages and body types.

Traditionally, Nō was performed on special stages:

16B17 Noh Stage (FI)

Performances took place at temple events, on holy days, and for audiences of samurai lords. Although commoners did attend the public performances at shrines and temples, Nō was primarily a pastime of the noble samurai class. Ironically, many (if not most) of the performers came from the common classes, because samurai were not permitted to act professionally on the stage. (During some historical eras, the taboo on samurai acting was social; in others, the activity was prohibited by law.)

By the 17th century, Nō troupes were heavily regulated (internally as well as by law) and difficult to join unless you were born into the theater world.

I’ll have quite a bit more to say about Nō in the weeks to come, because my upcoming Hiro Hattori Novel (formerly, Shinobi Mysteries—more on the reasons for the name change soon, though the content and characters are the same!), which releases in August from Seventh Street Books, involves the murder of an actor’s daughter by the banks of the Kamo river, and sends my detectives, ninja Hiro Hattori and Jesuit Father Mateo, into the heart of Kyoto’s theater district.

In other words…get ready to say yes to more about Nō.