Do you like classical plays like Shakespeare and Hamlet or do you prefer modern dramas like musicals? Although old plays might seem boring and stagnant at times, you will find that it carries deep meanings, and that the same essence of what constitutes a “good” play can be seen in classical plays. Noh, Japan’s oldest play is a prime example of this. In this article, we will be introducing you to the world of Noh-a world behind a mask.

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Noh is a traditional Japanese performance art that uses a mask. It is the oldest play that exists in the world. It is a musical that incorporates dance and singing. Singing and dancing were an integral part of people’s live in Japan for centuries. The majority of the folk dances and songs conducted during ceremonies were already popular in the Nara Period (710 – 794) and the Heian Period (‎794 – 1185). This developed into Noh during the Muromachi Period (1336-1573) and the Kamakura Period (1185-1333). Although it was based on the commoner’s folk dancing and singing, elements of Zen Buddhism and ink painting were added as it was favored by the nobles and the government.

The beauty of Noh is in its simplicity. Unlike kabuki or modern plays, there are not a lot of tools involved. The entire space which Noh is performed pursues a oneness with the guess, as there isn’t a curtain dividing the guests from the performers. The guests feel like they are at the same level with the performers, which creates an environment where the beautiful dancing is performed right in front of your eyes.

Masks are essential in Noh. There are 60 basic different kinds of masks a performer can wear in Noh. If you included the modern developments, you would have more than 200 of them. For a Noh performer, wearing a mask is considered a transformation of a person, just like wearing makeup. They believe that you are not only transforming to another person, but are given spiritual power. The Noh performer’s technique is tested when he puts on the mask, as his ability to see becomes significantly limited when wearing the mask.

Noh is also a great art for music lovers. There are about 240 songs that have been inherited from the Muromachi Period, and you will be able to enjoy ancient music that is still performed today.

Although Noh is fascinating for its beautiful traditional costumes, traditional dancing, and masks, perhaps what it sets itself apart from other performing arts is its goal. For Noh performers, what constitutes a good performance is if he could create a small cosmos in the theater, almost like a dream that will fascinate its guests. For each movement he makes, the guests’ imagination is stimulated, and together, they can go to the world that surpasses reality. Try watching Noh and experience this magical world.



Japanese Arts Council >>