Japanese No Plays
Japanese No Plays
Written by
Published by
Copyright 1941
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.

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The mask is a very important feature of the No play.

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

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.


A dragon lady conspicuous in a crown with a dragon-shaped ornament

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.


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.

The No actors in their bright costumes stand out against the simple background of the stage.

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.

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.


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

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 old master.

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.