Noh Theatre in Context of Globalization

Theatre is the result of development and civilized institutionalization of orgiastic and shamanistic cults (Abraham). In fact, such statement is equally right for theatre in any country and cultural space. Such common roots determine similar features between different national theatrical traditions such as, for example, Japanese Noh and Greek classical drama. Many researchers underline their similarity because both of them include masks, songs, dances, opposition of chorus and characters, opposition of audience and actors, and some other common features.

Despite high attention of European intellectuals to the Greek theatre, it is a very obscure phenomenon for today’s researchers because it passed through the developmental changes along with the European civilization. The isolationist politics of Japan before the Meiji revolution and its conservative course after that helped to save the fundamentals of Japanese traditional culture and the Noh drama as well. On the one hand, this detail helps to understand some obscure fields of Greek theatre through the comparative analysis. Besides, the difference between Greek and Japanese religions and philosophical teachings, which were the main roots of both theatres, poses a serious obstacle. In today’s globalized world, Noh with its history, aesthetical principles and religious and philosophical presuppositions can help to find evidence of common roots of Japan and Europe and serve as a communicative instrument for further multicultural world development.

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The Origins of Noh

The history of Noh begins since the Chinese art called sangaku appeared in Japan in VIII century and became one of the main forms of social realization through art. Thus, “this led to the development of sarugaku which included pantomime, acrobatics and magic; and gagaku, a more solemn form of music and dance” (“Introducing the World of Noh”). In fact, Sarugaku Noh was the ancient name for today’s phenomenon of Noh. In fact, Noh is a shortened form of that, and the word noh means “talent”, “skill” or “accomplishment”; thus, the primary meaning of the word noh was very broad and included not only Sarugaku but also Dengaku Noh. The main movements in Sarugaku Noh were mimetic, when Dengaku Noh was the way of symbolical description of the world through the human body movements (“Introducing the World of Noh”).

Sarugaku Noh as a realistic art was much more secular (but also connected with Shinto) because the artist in it just represented the external world. Apparently, its simple form made it available for poor people and peasants who did not demand any deep theoretical construction of drama and could not afford the performance of well-educated artists. On the contrary, Dengaku Noh was very close to Japanese aristocracy and its realization was in strong connection with religious rituals and Japanese religious philosophy (“Introducing the World of Noh”). Symbolical representation of the world demanded high education of artists and control of priesthood. That is the reason why Sarugaku Noh with its dynamism, orientation on popularity and attention to the world as the source of inspiration was much more advantageous. On the other hand, Dengaku Noh was based primarily on static traditions, unchangeable movements, and lack of artists’ initiative and creativity.

With the development and institutionalization of both movements, two large groups Sarugaku-za and Dengaku-za appeared. There were many smaller competing theatrical groups in different cities. For example, in Yamato, there were four groups, namely “Yusaki-za, Sakado-za, Tobi-za and Enmai-za” (“Introducing the World of Noh”). Kanami was the head of Yusaki-za who developed the technique of his school by new dancing storytelling practices of his rivals. Thus, Kanami’s son Zeami created Noh in its modern forms by synthesizing the best achievements of other schools he wanted to defeat. In such a way, all four schools mentioned are the founders of Noh in its modern form, when the person who combined them into one tradition was Zeami from Yamato (“Introducing the World of Noh”).

After that, Noh represented by the four schools of Yamato and the fifth new school named Kita became the official art of the Tokugawa Shogunate. The integrative essence of new art allowed it to become attractive both for aristocracy and common people, and in such a way Noh achieved the highest position among the Japanese art. At the same time, after Zeami and his relatives, Noh became static and lost its dynamic creativity. The reason was that the traditions founded by the creators of genre considered to be more important than personal initiatives of further heads of Noh schools. After the Meiji revolution, Noh theatre lost the governmental support and that was the beginning of its decline. Besides, after the World War II, the Western world became fascinated by Japan and its traditional culture. That is why the second half of XX century opened a way for the development of Noh and its further popularization and research, especially in Europe (“Introducing the World of Noh”).

The history of Noh institutionalization is important for deep understanding of this cultural phenomenon. Besides, the history of Noh inception and development has the aspect of worldview through which Noh is considered to be a form of some religious and philosophical Japanese teachings interpretation. The most important in this sense are shamanism that helped Noh to appear as a typical theatrical art form and Zen Buddhism (Abraham).

According to Ralph Abraham, shamanism as the earliest and most widespread religious form in the world (which appeared in Paleolithic age) has some general features common for all peoples and lands despite national, geographical, economical and other differences between them. Thus, shamanists believe that powerful invisible spirits exist in this world, and some talented people called shamans can serve as the chanellers between human society and the spiritual reality. Shamanistic rituals include many inseparable details such as specific music, dances, travestism, drugs use and other means that help a shaman to achieve orgiastic state of mind as the main condition for communication with spirits. The mystical experience of shamanistic practices found its formal realization in different rituals that became the basic structure for many religions and Shinto among them. In Japan, Abraham claims, “the arts evolved from rituals to kagura – a dance performance involving kami (ghost, divine guest) – by the 8th century” (Abraham). Kagura was the result of the combination of Japanese shamanistic rituals and gigaku (Chinese masks, musical instruments and dresses), gagaku (Korean music) and bugaku (Indian, Tibetian and Chinese dances). Gigaku and gagaku came to Japan in V century, and after three centuries, came bugaku. It is obvious that these foreign traditions also had shamanistic ritual roots, but they belonged to other nations and that is why their formal realization was different from that in Japanese culture. Thus, the mentioned Sarugaku Noh is the result of the combination of different artistic approaches and traditions, which appeared after the strengthening of Chinese cultural influences on Japan. According to Abraham, all developmental transformations of Noh can be considered as the result of cross-cultural interrelations. Thus, Abraham divides the history of Noh into three periods, namely its inception (XI century), the first Noh performances elaborated by Kanami and Zeami (XV century) and the epoch since the beginning of the isolationist politics of militarist Tokugawa Shogunate, during which Noh became static and institutionalized theatrical art (XVII century). Such specifics allow one to understand Noh as part of the universal culture, and such point of view helps one with its identification within the context of today’s globalized world.

Another important detail is the influence of Zen Buddhism, the specific Japanese form of Buddhism, which appeared as the result of Buddha’s teaching integration into the world of Shinto traditions. Royall Tyler underlines that despite “some plays present Japanese deities and some evoke thoughts of shamanistic ritual”, but at the same time “a great many are permeated with obviously Buddhist language”. Tyler claims that those were Buddhist monks who brought to Japan the Chinese, Korean and Indian influences Abraham wrote about, that is why those impacts had a Buddhist form even while their core was of some another origin. Tyler researches many aspects of classical Noh performance and compares them with some ideas of Zen. In such a way, he concludes that philosophical and symbolical teaching of Zen became an integral part of general theoretical and practical forms of Noh. Zen is a branch of the world Buddhism, and at the same time, it exists as a national Japanese form of it. That means that Noh can also serve as the way to find the common features between Japanese and Buddhist practitioners. With attention to recent popularity of Buddhism as a life philosophy in the West, such conclusion opens some new perspectives on cultural interrelation through the research of Noh theatre.

The Main Tenets of Noh Drama

The development and institutionalization of Noh allowed its practitioners to create some specific recommendations and demands to future actors in order to preserve the spiritual core of Noh tradition despite any cultural transformations. Thus, Zeami, the founder of Noh in its modern form, elaborated two main principles of any Noh performance. The first one is “monomane” (imitation), and it means that Noh performers have to be highly attentive to the world outside in order to copy it in a dramatic form (“Noh Theatre”). Music and dance that played the psychological role in shamanistic Japan today are used to imitate some phenomena of social, spiritual or natural life. Thus, in such a way, they give the audience some hints through the connections between an imitated phenomenon and something symbolically represented by it.

The second principle of Noh is “yugen” (mystery). It means that a play has only to provide some hints without direct explanations or interpretations (“Noh Theatre”). Thus, through dance and music, Noh performers give hints on different psychological states, inner contradictions of a person and other difficult images that cannot find representation through a plain and direct performance, but only with the help of vague symbols. In such a way, the principle of mystery paradoxically means that in Noh the truth has to be covered, but at the same time, this cover has to help the audience to understand what is under it.

It is obvious that both principles of Noh originated from the mentioned contradiction between Sarugaku-za and Dengaku-za and that the first one triggered the principle of imitation when the principle of mystery belongs to the second one. In fact, both principles are also in contradiction because the principle of imitation means a direct representation of the reality when the principle of mystery denies it. Thus, the “mystery” substitutes the directness by symbolism and replaces the objective reality by subjective mentality, and the same is right for the “imitation”, which in turn conflicts with the “mystery”. In fact, that internal contradiction is one of the main reasons why Noh could exist for about six centuries (since Zeami) without any efficient changes. The tension inside Noh theoretical base serves as the source of its vivacious character. Thus, through the inner struggle, Noh preserves its external formal continuity.

There are five different types of noh play, but all of them have to be held in completed Noh performance. The first one is the kami play or god play, which shows some divine aspects of reality and tells some mythological tale concerning Japanese gods (kami) who are the main characters in such type of Noh play. The second one is the shura mono (fighting play) that is more dynamic; the main character of it is a warrior, and a plot concerns some warrior affairs. The third type of play katsura mono (wig play) tells about a female character who resolves some problems of her life during the plot. The fourth type includes both gendai mono and kyojo mono. On the one hand, gendai mono concerns the modern world problems, when three previous types would be based on some ancient plot. On the other hand, kyojo mono shows a modern woman who went mad because of some tragedy in her personal life. At last, the kiri (final) or kichiki (demon) type tells about some supernatural creatures, monsters and demons (“Noh Theatre”). The order of these five parts is obligatory, and in such a way, it is obvious that Noh performance demonstrates the degradation of the world. Starting from wise and powerful gods, it moves through warriors, women (in traditional patriarchal cultures such as Japanese one, women are always subordinated to men), mad women and at last demons and witches that embody the evil itself. In some cases, there is an introductory part called okina before the kami play; in fact, it is a dance, which substitutes a common prayer for peace and prosperity. There are also interpolations of kyogen (comic drama) scenes between those five central parts of Noh dramatic performance; kyogen scenes help to connect each part with the others (“Noh Theatre”).

As for the actors, there are three performers in Noh, namely shite (the main character), waki (the subordinate one) and kyogen actor who usually narrates the plot to the audience (“Noh Theatre”). As it was mentioned, the type of a play determines its characters’ behavior, sex, and other important details. Moreover, each actor has their own place on the scene in accordance with their role, and such determination shows the traditional character of Noh theatre where all details work in a structural unity. For some reasons of religious (shamanistic) and aesthetical kind, the actors use masks on the scene; each character has their own canonic image. The traditions of Noh include many masks each of which means some behavioral paradigm that corresponds to a specific type of a play. In general, a mask itself exists in accordance with the principles of Noh, thereby imitating some real phenomenon and in such a way representing some object. At the same time, masks are stylized and have no natural features but only symbolical correspondence with the objects described (“Noh Theatre”). Such symbolism only gives one hints on some sense and in such a way works in accordance with the principle of mystery. Certainly, the mystery is also a face of actor themselves because a mask covers it, and at the same time, with the help of the mask, the actor realizes the imitation of their character in a dramatic performance. It is worth mentioning that both principles work together.

Except the actors, there is a chorus with four musicians on the Noh scene. The musicians traditionally “play a flute (nokan), small hand drum (ko-tsuzumi), large hand drum (o-tsuzumi), and large drum (taiko)” (“Noh Theatre”). The Noh chorus includes about 8-10 singers whose role in a performance is not less important than that of the actors (“Noh Theatre”). The chorus debates with the characters, comments their action with recitation and concludes each play. However, Noh plays have no clear plot with action as the Western theatre has. Due to that unclearness, the actors of Noh theatre with the help of the chorus are able to create a vague image inside the consciousness of the audience instead of logically clear but spiritually plain plot that just retranslates some continuity of actions.

The dialectical essence of Noh expressed in Zeami’s principles is characteristic of all forms of Noh musical drama realization. Contradictions between covered and imitated, divine and demonic, common and aristocratic, male and female, personal (actors) and collective (chorus) provide the internal dynamics of theatre itself. Thus, this detail makes Noh attractive for the Western culture with its dialectical philosophical understanding of the reality.


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Noh and the Western Theatre

Some connections between Japanese Noh and European theatrical art can be obvious when some are rather unexpected. As for the first group, it firstly concerns the interrelation between Noh and Greek drama. The mentioned common shamanistic roots of all dramatic arts underlined by Abraham is the best explanation of the reason why there are so many common details between these two national theatres such as masks, dances, opposition of chorus and actors, scene, specific costumes, orgiastic music and other similarities. For example, the most persuasive explanation of the opposition between chorus and characters appeals to drama’s religious roots (Abraham). In ancient times, the priest represented the god, and after the secular transformation of liturgical ceremony into drama, a character replaced a priest. As for a chorus, in ancient times, it comprised the believers who spoke to god represented by a priest. The audience appeared only after the appearance of drama as a form of art instead of religious practice. In fact, such explanation is right equally for Japanese theatre of Noh with its Shinto roots and Greek drama which was primarily the institutionalized form of Greek god of vine Bacchus’ orgiastic worshiping. The same appellation to the common roots of both phenomena can serve as the best explanation of similarities between them.

Besides, such state of things makes important to underline some differences between Noh and Greek drama. After the development in Ancient Greece, the second one passed through the Roman interpretations and at last disappeared in the Early Medieval ages. The theatre of Renaissance (such as Shakespeare’s one) replaced it and all today’s people know about the Greek drama is only the result of philological and archeological researches. At the same time, the younger relative of Greek theatre Japanese Noh still exists in accordance with its primary principles. Thus, these details allow the Western researchers to believe that they can understand the essence of Greek theatre in its natural form through the comparison with currently existing Noh because of their common features. Such structuralist approach makes Noh much more important than just a phenomenon of Japanese traditional culture.

European researchers Ezra Pound and Ernest Fenollosa compare Greek theatre and Shakespeare’s theatre with Noh. They underline that “all three had an independent growth from miracle plays – the first from the plays of the worship of Bacchus, the second from the plays of the worship of Christ, the third from the plays of the worship of the Shinto deities and of Buddha”. Such parallels are usual for those progressive researchers who try to understand all cultures as equally important for the humanity. In this context, Noh connects Japan, which embodies the East, with Greece and England that have much in common with pagan and Christian West. It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of such function.


Noh is a Japanese national musical drama, which uses specific rituals, masks, dances, equipment and traditional theoretical tenets of prehistoric shamanistic and ancient Buddhist origin. The structure of Noh performance is the result of ages of cross-cultural communication, transformations and static Japanese forms development. Despite that, Noh has many details that are common to European dramatic art. Through the comparison of Noh with Greek drama, it is obvious that East and West have a great potential for further cultural collaboration and productive interrelation.