TOURIST LIBRARY 16
Japanese No Plays
ZEMMARO TOKI, D. Litt.
JAPAN TRAVEL BUREAU, Tokyo
Total 225 pages
No (Noh) is a form of ancient Japanese stage art using masks in song and dance performed
to instrumental music. The main actor is often masked, and relies on subtle gestures
and dances to act the part. No plays often feature stories of the supernatural,
and are classified in three different categories: Jo (intro plays), Ha (more complex
stories), and Kyuu (finales). No has changed little in the six hundred or so years
since its development.
Please enjoy these excepts from “Japanese No Plays”
THE MOST CHARACTERISTIC ELEMENT — THE MASK
The mask is a very important feature of the No play.
Masks are used in the No drama. But all the actors that appear on the No stage are
not masked; it is only the shite, or the principal actor, and the shite-zure, or
adjunct to the shite, that wear masks. Other actors, such as the ivaki, or the secondary
actor, and his adjunct, the waki-zure, are never masked. In some plays neither the
shite nor the shite-zme is masked. But even when masks are not worn, it is a general
rule for No actors not to show any facial expression, just as if they were masked.
Since only one specific mask is used for one part, one would naturally think that
it could not represent more than one expression. But masked No actors express all
the range of feelings commensurate with the development of the play by a dextrous
movement of the head and hands; in other words, by gestures. It is surprising how
well an artistic mask of exquisite workmanship, worn by a skilled actor, can convey
to the audience even the slightest nuance of expression.
Why do they use masks in the No? Among the characters played in the No are gods,
warriors, nobles, and commoners—of all ages and both sexes. Some of the characters
are of this world, but many are fanciful ones, such as the ghosts of dead persons.
There are also hobgoblins represented. As a general rule all these characters are
played by male actors. Moreover, one and the same actor has to act more than one
part. In short, so many and varied are the themes and contents of the No that it
is not humanly possible for an actor to express realistically all that is to be
represented on the No stage. This is one of the chief reasons for the use of masks.
Most of the No plays in which the shite actor is not masked are limited to those
descriptive of events or characters of a realistic nature. Inasmuch as No actors
never make up, masks may be said to do duty for the make-up used in other forms
of dramatic art. Masks are divided into several patternized categories; different
masks are used, as a rule, for different plays, and with great stage effect.
Clad in the dress given her by Narihira as a souvenir. Aritsune's daughter looks
into the well where the figure of her lover is supposed to be mirrored.
THE QUINTESSENCE OF THE NO
A dragon lady conspicuous in a crown with a dragon-shaped ornament
Apart from the stage, the staging, the masks and the costumes, there are three main
attributes of the No play; namely, the inai (rhythmic chant), the mai (dance) and
the hayashi (music). It is in the No play that this trinity of essentials is brought
into perfect harmony. Each piece has a plot of sorts. But the plot of a No play
is not necessarily what one understands by that word as applied to the modem theater.
The plot of a No play is rather inconsequential; the main object is to make the
audience appreciate the beautiful, rhythmically and musically, through dance and
song. The beautiful in the No centers in the conceptions of sanctity, dignity, probity,
nobility, elegance and virility. In other words, the plot of a No play w as added
in order to enhance the entertainment value of the dance and song.
The essence of expression in the No lies in concentrated simplicity, unity and harmony,
and in pattemized symbolism. The No is, for example, an art developed on the shite
first principle, an art in which action centers around the shite w ho is about the
only actor that wears a mask.
Another characteristic feature is that the maximum of stage effect is expected from
the minimum of movement by the actor. All divagations are eliminated to reduce this
lyrical drama to a severe simplicity. Outwardly, the symbolized movements of the
X d actors are slow and quiet. But it is not a slowness born of a lack of activity.
The No actor's movements are restricted, by convention, within extremely narrow
limits. For example, even when representing a person in deep grief, all that a No
actor does is to lift his hand softly before his eyes. Similarly, he lifts up his
masked face just the merest trifle to indicate a feeling of joy.
In one of the popular No plays there is a scene in which the shite represents a
vindictive woman, now in the form of a serpent, trying to force herself into a temple
bell under which the man who has run away from her lies in concealment. The dance
which the actor performs shows, on the face of it, nothing suggestive of roughness
or, violence, but the actor is called on to act in such a way that an impression
of exuberant but hidden strength is left with the audience.
The No is an art in which different qualities, opposed to each other, blend so well
as to make a harmonious whole. Vivacity is found side by side with the gentle; the
complex with the simple; an element of gaiety with loneliness. Herein lies the essence
of the No. It is expressed in the Japanese word yugen, a phrase which embodies the
idea of the beautiful as conceived in Medieval Japan. Zeami Motokiyo (1363-1443
or 45) to whose genius the No owes its present form makes frequent mention of this
word in his writings. “A white bird with a flower in its beak” is, according to
him, symbolic of yugen and signifies the elegant, the beautiful, the subtle. An
artist who is instinct with the idea of yugen does not forget to leave a good deal
to the play of the imagination.
GROWTH OF THE NO PLAY
The No actors in their bright costumes stand out against the simple background of
the stage. The brilliant figure above is performing the dance of an orang-outang
inebriated by liquor.
It was in the latter half of the Kamakura period (1185-1392) that the No came to
assume its present form and to be appreciated not only by high officials of the
ruling shogunate government and warriors, but also by the people in general. With
the advent of the next historical period, the Muromachi period (1392- 1573), this
form of stage art gained further popularity. It maintained its popularity, on the
whole, right through the Edo period (1615-1868), but it suffered a temporary decline
after the Meiji Restoration of 1868. Fortunately, however, for the No and for Japan,
the Revolution did not spell a complete ruin to this classic art. Thanks to the
support of some influential men of the government, it was given a chance to revive
among the people at large.
Strictly speaking, what we today call the No used to be known as sarugaku-no-nd
some six hundred years ago. Historically, it is an outcome of the assimilation or
rather accretion of the essential elements of all the traditional, native and imported
arts. Opinion is divided among the experts as to the exact extent of such an influence,
but it may be outlined as follows: Away back in the Nara period (645-794) a form
of art called sangaku was introduced into Japan from China, or rather via China
from India, Persia and Central Asia, where it was popular as a show consisting of
dancing or jugglery. It enjoyed the patronage of the Japanese court. Then in the
following Heian period (794-1185) a part of its essentials and the indigenous comic
dance-play called dengaku gradually combined. The dengaku had developed from the
custom of conjuring up the spirits of the rice-field at the time of rice-planting
into a form of art little concerned with rural life. This mixture of foreign and
native elements became a medium of dramatic expression, such as it was, through
words and gesture. Played by actors dressed in gorgeous costume, to the accompaniment
of instrumental music, this new form of stage art, now dignified by the name of
sarugaku-no-nd, or sarugaku for short, grew up as a favorite musical drama among
the people of all strata of society.
The actors of the sarugaku formed groups. Different troupes belonged to different
temples and shrines. Chief among these groups were the four that flourished in what
is now Xara and its environs towards the end of the 14th century. Among the actors
of the sarugaku troupe belonging to the Kasuga Shrine at Xara was a man named Kan-ami
Kivotsugu (1333-1384) who succeeded in giving an artistic effect to the sarugaku
by adding some of the good points of the kuse-mai which was the fashion in those
days. The kuse-mai was a dance which a person, whose function it was to relate the
history of a temple or the life of a noted priest, performed, as he chanted it in
the form of an epic. This new departure took the fancy of the reigning shogun who
was a great patron of art and letters. Thus Kan-ami acquired influence. In the masterly
hands of his son Zeami Motokivo (1363-1443 or 45), who was also a man of great artistic
talents, this form of art made further progress. Besides being an actor of a high
order of merit, he had a flair for plot writing and staging plays,—a circumstance
which is evident from his writings. In other words, Zeami elevated what his father
had created to a higher pitch of excellence. It was these two, father and son, who
established the Kanze school of No. About that time three other schools —Komparu,
Hosho, and Kongo—also came into existence. Then later on yet another—the Kita school—sprang
up. And these five schools have been handed down from generation to generation to
the present day.
MASKS AND COSTUMES
While all No actors use costumes, it is generally only the shite actor that is masked.
Shite-zure, or as¬sistants of the shite, also wear masks but only when they represent
female characters. No other actors are masked. Theatrical make-up is never resorted
to in the No. Even the shite is not masked when representing a character in an earthly
or realistic piece.
Some masks are a little smaller than the human face; others are a little larger.
Masks are considered sacred by No actors, and a masked actor is supposed to be a
living embodiment of the qualities he is called upon to represent. Once a No actor
has put on his mask his whole body and soul seems to take on the character of the
personage he represents. It is said that good No actors put life into their masks.
For this purpose in the mirror room backstage, having fastened the mask into place,
the actor looks into the mirror to familiarize himself with his character part,
and so comes to feel himself the perfect embodiment of the character to be represented.
An actor impersonating Kagekivo, once a brave warrior but now an old blind beggar
(ref. p. 159). Note the strength and beauty of the lines on the mask carved by an
All No actors are costumed. The costumes used are based on the styles of the fifteenth
century, that is, the robes worn by the court nobles, warriors, civilians, monks,
laymen, and women of those long-ago days. In the styles and color schemes of these
costumes one finds artistic characteristics that are peculiar to the No.
The costumes show variety according to the methods of weaving used, the style of
dyeing, the patterns and the designs. Many of them are definitely gorgeous. Most
typical of them is the one known as the karaori costume; it is a sort of gown worn
by a woman, and has exquisite patterns woven in relief with threads of gold, silver
and other colors. The gorgeous costumes are very effective on the No stage which
is so devoid of scenery.
According to the parts taken in the play, the No actors hold in their hands the
things considered necessary for the representation of those parts. These are all
simple articles with a symbolical meaning and are not intended for practical use.
Chief among those often used are the ordinary folding fan and what is called the
chukei, a sort of narrow folding fan which is made in various designs. Both types
of fans often do duty for swords, arrows or even for wine-cups. A round fan is used
when the actor wishes to represent a Chinese or a hobgoblin. A mad woman always
holds a spray of bamboo-grass in her hand.