The Aesthetics of Noh Performance

by Monica Bethe and Karen Brazell1

 

Entrance of shite in Izutsu

 Entrance of shite in Izutsu
GloPAD #1000273

Yuki Waki entrance at Nara

 Yuki Waka entrance at Nara
GloPAD #1001218

Yorimasa shite entrance at Kasuga Shrine

 Yorimasa shite entrance
GloPAD #1694

Noh is an organic, living system, and when a performance comes to life, the aesthetic experience can be profoundly moving. The totality of this experience is indescribable, but some of the effects of noh can be explained by examining its aesthetics. Because of the high degree of stylization, performing noh is not like acting in realistic Western theatre. Yet both forms of theatre share the ideal of the actor totally identifying with the role. Unlike Stanislovski's method of acting in which the actor must concentrate on feeling the role until his spontaneous movements become totally in character, Noh performance begins with the formal system, with learning to be in the right place at the right time doing the right thing. Noh is based on total regulation of external expression, on a highly complex system controlling every detail. Until the performer is so familiar with the role that he can perform unthinkingly, he cannot begin to let it possess him, and thereby to become one with it. Good noh performance involves total coincidence of the internal and the external. This may be seen as the tension of a filled drinking skin, the inner intensity of the actor all but bursting the container.2

The main performer in a noh play (the shite) usually wears a mask, However, in noh plays about living, youngish or middle-aged men such as the shite in the first act of Atsumori, the actors do not wear masks.Atsumori Act I Unmasked performers must keep their faces expressionless, as mask-like as possible. which serves to erase the actor's individuality, shifting attention instead to the single, highly complex, intangible meaning which the main figure in a play expresses. However, the way the mask is worn makes clear how little noh attempts to create an illusion of reality in the Western sense. The mask is a bit smaller than life size and worn in such a way that the actor's jowls are revealed. The decorative hair band, which holds female wigs in place, is worn over the actor's forehead, but underneath the mask. Although the broad white headband worn by warriors encircles the forehead over the mask, producing quite a different effect see photo 2 showing both styles below,3 no real attempt is made to hide the fact that the actor is wearing a mask. The effect of this double exposure is central to the aesthetics of noh.

Male mask with headband
Photo 1-Male mask with headband

female mask with headband underneath
Photo 2-Female mask with headband underneath

The lack of concern for creating an illusion of reality is also seen in the role of the stage attendants. If an actor should get his sleeve caught in his headdress (as quite frequently happens) or fall off the stage (which rarely happens), another actor does not have to improvise some realistic action to come to his aid; rather, a stage attendant (a kōken seated at the back of the stage in formal Japanese attire) comes forward to help. These attendants (there are normally two) produce props when needed, straighten out the folds of the shite's costume, prompt him if he forgets a line, and even take over his role if he becomes incapacitated during a performance. None of this is perceived as disruptive, however, because noh does not require a suspension of disbelief. Instead art is created openly and immediately; the audience is a part of the reality of this creation.

noh stage photo
Akogi, August 1985. GloPAD #1001247 shitekotsuzumifuewakiotsuzumijiutaikōkentaiko

Other performers who are not representing characters in the play are also regularly on stage. Most importantly the members of the instrumental ensemble (hayashi) and chorus (jiutai) remain on stage throughout the play,4 signaling the degree of their participation in various ways. The chorus members put their fans on the floor in front of them when they are not participating (photo below), pick them up in the right hand when they are preparing to chant (photo above), and hold them on their right knee, the tip touching the stage floor, when they are actively participating. Performance(Photo 4, GloPAD #1000605)

Similarly, during the aikyōgen interlude between acts, the drummers usually get off their stools and sit on the stage floor to take a break (photo 4 above shows the taiko drummer in this relaxed position). During an act when there is no instrumental part, a drummer may tighten the strings of his instrument, lay it down beside him, or exchange it for another. When he is actively participating in the performance, however, the musician’s movements are minutely prescribed, for they are an integral part of the whole.

Actors may also be present on stage even when they are not actively participating in the stage action. By convention the waki, seated at his pillar in front of the chorus, does not see or hear the shite's first entrance scene. In many plays the waki has no actions after the first or second scene of the second act, yet he remains on stage through the play paying no attention to the shite's performance;5 he keeps an expressionless face, sitting as motionless as possible and staring straight ahead.

Occasionally characters who are crucial to the plot of the play are not performed by shite actors. For example in the play Aoi no Ue the homophonous character is represented by a folded robe placed on the floor of the stage (photo 7). Very prestigious characters, such as an emperor or the historical Minamoto Yoshitsune, are often presented by child actors (kokata; photo 8).

 

Costume representing Lady Aoi no Ue
Photo 7-Costume representing Lady Aoi no Ue
Kokata, child actor, as Yoshitsune in Funa Benkei
Photo 8-Kokata, child actor, as Yoshitsune in Funa Benkei

In noh, then, we have a theater in which performers create art directly instead of creating an illusion, which the audience is asked to accept as real. In realistic drama each actor portrays one character through words, vocal and facial expressions, and movements. Events are shown (dramatized) rather than told (narrated). In Noh the entire ensemble unites to create one being, who is most often something more than a normal human. To accomplish this, noh utilizes the narrative and lyric modes as well as the dramatic. In fact, the dramatic mode is normally used only to present the least dramatic material, as for example in conversation scenes between minor roles (waki, wakizure, aikyōgen, or tsure) where the discourse is stereotyped and the language almost formulaic. When the shite is involved, the mode usually shifts from dramatic to narrative and/or lyric; separate characters fade, and the being on whom the play focuses predominates. The presentation of this being, the main character, is not limited to the shite; nor is the shite limited to the words and actions this character actually says or does.

In other words, it is necessary to distinguish between the stage figure (the shite) and the character impersonated by that figure.6 The actions of the shite may be those of the character he is presenting, but they need not be. The shite’s actions may portray emotion through abstract movement, illustrate metaphors, dramatize narrative, or fill the kinetic forms of the system. In some plays the shite even performs the actions of other characters. This occurs most noticeably in warrior plays such as Tadanori and Yorimasa when the shite dramatizes the actions of both the victor and the warrior he defeated.

Shite about to cut off Tadanori's head Similar to the language of noh, which works simultaneously on several levels and has a shifting point of view, noh dance changes perspective quickly and fluidly. It is the character Yamanba who steps into the window of the weaving room in the play Yamanba, but the shite who points to the metaphoric warblers flitting through the branches like a shuttle through the weaving shed, and the shite who then circles the stage to complete the formal sequence of the dance.

Not only does the shite transcend the boundaries of a dramatization of the character, but the character also transcends the boundaries of the shite. That is to say, other performers share in the presentation of a character such as Yamanba. For example, the art of the flautist lies in his ability to give his arrhythmic, sporadic passages the special eeriness, which evokes the mood of Yamanba. Most obvious is the role of the chorus, who may speak for the characters. Unlike a Greek chorus, which sings in its own voice as an independent character or commentator, the chorus in noh does not have a voice of its own. It embodies the text, which flows from one point of view to another, sometimes narrating in the third person, sometimes dramatizing the voice of a character, and sometimes singing lyric passages. The chorus and the shite often share lines, completing each other's sentences and speaking in the same person as they do in Yamanba’s kuse scene: "This sad world, an empty husk or battered cloak (line 66 by the shite) on whose unbrushed sleeve lays frost (line 67 by chorus)."

Two actors may share lines in a similar way, as is exemplified in the description of Yamanba early in act two:INSERT VIDEO OF THESE LINES HERE?

  Tsure:...in form and speech a human yet,
Shite:snow covered brambles for hair,
Tsure:eyes shining like stars.
Shite:Cheeks the color
Tsure:of vermilion.
Shite:Shape of a demon crouched under eves...

This device of dividing a unified description between two speakers to give a single thought a double identity is typical of noh. It builds tension through the sensitive timing required by the alternating lines of shared speech, isolates and emphasizes words and phrases by breaking up sentences, and unifies the presences on stage. In Yamanba the sharing of lines also helps to underscore the shared reality of the two characters—Hyakuma, the singer, and Yamanba, the subject of her song.

The simultaneity of multiple perspectives at all levels of performance creates a complex yet unified impression. Words may have double and even triple meanings; with each repetition, poems gain in depth, props take on new significance without shedding the old. In plays like Yamanba multiple perspective is not only a mode of presentation, but also an explicit theme of the play. We are told that Yamanba is good, bad, visible, invisible, suffering, and enlightened - in short, that our viewpoint is not necessarily truth: we must see from a wider perspective; we must gain enlightenment to see reality. Experience of the performance of noh may be a step toward this goal.

The interlocking systems, which form the network of the noh, must come alive for this to be accomplished. Technical mastery must become art. When a performance is alive, there is an unspoken communication among the performers, which feeds on itself as they sense one another's timing and draw power from each other's art. With any specific group there is only one opportunity for this to occur, for a performance is a one-time happening. There are no rehearsals in the Western sense. Each performer learns his role independently through long years of training under a master. A few days before a performance, the performers meet once for a run-through of the most important parts of the play. On the day of the performance everyone is aware that it is the only chance the ensemble will have of performing that particular play together.7 For the shite it may in fact be the only time he performs that play, since even the most active and long-lived actors are unable to find the opportunity to act every one of the approximately 200 plays in the repertory. The psychological awareness of their unique opportunity plus the relative newness of the ensemble to its individual members combined with their familiarity with the material creates a tension, which may burst into powerful creativity. For an hour and a half the theatre may turn into a living picture of profound beauty. This is noh at its best. If the spark stubbornly refuses to ignite, a technically competent performance results, and another group at another time will have their chance to re-create the play.

  1. 1. An earlier version of this essay appeared as "Chapter 2: The Aesthetics of Noh," in Noh as Performance: An Analysis of the Kuse Scene of Yamamba, published by the China-Japan Program (now the East Asia Program), Cornell University, 1978. Here we have made minor changes to the text, included more images and added links to Internet sources. For an archival copy of the original, click here.
  2. 2. This metaphor was suggested by the noh actor Izumi Yoshio in conversation.
  3. 3. In the folk noh at Kurokawa, even the female headband is worn over the mask.
  4. 4. The taiko drummer is sometimes an exception: he may enter through the small stage-left door (kirido; see Noh Stages: Kirido) just before his part begins. In some performances the back row of the chorus enters through the same door just before their first line. This is a concession to physical discomfort; kneeling motionlessly for a long period on a hard floor is a strain even for those accustomed to it.
  5. 5. A notable exception is Kiyotsune, in which the waki exits after his lines, leaving the wife (tsure) and Kiyotsune’s ghost alone on stage. When a character is killed on stage, the actor generally exits immediately through the small side door. When the aikyōgen participates only in the interlude between acts, he enters unobtrusively at a fixed point and leaves after his part if completed. As a concession to their age, very young children (kokata) may be permitted to exit after their active role is finished.
  6. 6. Jiri Veltrusky emphasizes this distinction and uses these English terms in his provocative article "Contribution to the Semiotics of Acting" in Sound, Sign and Meaning: Quinguagenary of the Prague Linguistic Circle, ed. Ladislav Matejki, Michigan Slavic Contributions, No. 6 (University of Michigan: 1976), pp. 553-607.
  7. 7. The exception to this is when a noh troupe performs overseas and is forced to perform the same plays over and over. The performers find this repetition disconcerting and the circumstances inconducive to excellence.
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