In the Noh: The Poetics of Classical Japanese Theatre

CHORUS: Pine Wind and Autumn Rain
Both drenched their sleeves with the tears
Of hopeless love beyond their station,
Fisher girls of Suma.
Our sin is deep, o priest.
Pray for us, we beg of you!
(They [Matsukaze and Murasame] press their palms together in supplication)
Our love grew rank as wild grasses;
Tears and love ran wild.
It was madness that touched us.
Despite spring purification,
Performed in our old robes,
Despite prayers inscribed on paper streamers,
The gods refused us their help.
We were left to melt away
[In the Noh Theater (Ogata Gekkō, 1891)— the actor’s wig implies that this is a “mad” character]

When I was entering my senior year of high school, a requirement for my AP World History class was to read a work of world literature from an approved list drawn up by my teacher, Mr. Walsh—dear lord, how I wish I still had that list! Whatever I first chose (also wish I could remember what that was) ended up having already been picked by someone else and in the interest of diversity, I was asked to chose something else. Despite being a voracious reader by that point, I was being raised on an American public school curriculum where my boy Willy Shakes counted as “world literature” and in the infancy of the internet. This made information hard to come by and consequently, my reading lanes were narrow. Because I had no real working knowledge of any of the remaining titles (leading me to suspect whatever the mystery first choice was must have been a little familiar, either in author or subject), I essentially picked my replacement at random and succeeded in embarrassing poor, sweet Mr. W in the process.

I remember him leaning in, red in the face, and mumbling something to the effect of this book having a reputation for being kind of explicit and he just wanted me to know that first, to give me the chance to change my mind. My reading lanes vis à vis the non-English speaking world might have been narrow, but I had read indiscriminately enough to have accidentally (I swear! I was a really lame kid…) stumbled into more than one extremely graphic romance novel among my grandmother’s (seriously) stacks and I had trouble believing whatever this book was could be any more salacious than those. So I stuck to my choice, and because this was the Before Times, I made my mom take me to Barnes & Noble so we could place an order for them to get me this book. But the rigmarole in obtaining it and the likely, if unremembered, vicarious chagrin teenaged me must have felt convincing my relatively young, male history teacher to let me forge ahead with a “dirty” book was amply rewarded. For that book was Sei Shōnagon’s Pillow Book, and it would kick off a lifelong love of Japanese literature and poetry, and an obsession with the female-dominated classical nikki (diary) genre it comes from.

[For the record, The Pillow Book is not graphically sexual. Its reputation is probably a holdover from its original late-Victorian English translations, where a woman implying that a guy she wasn’t married to spent the night at her place would have been scandalous (to the English, not to the Japanese of her time). My glorious queen Shōnagon is more interested in roasting these dudes for their sub-par morning-after poems (a crucial part of any Heian Era dalliance) than describing their sexual performances. It was totally okay to let me read this at seventeen, Mr. W!]

Despite this affinity, particularly for medieval Japanese literature, I’ve always felt I had a blind spot when it came to the other major art form of the time: the theater. I knew the absolute minimum (noh is the one with masks, kabuki is the one with makeup), but it still felt like an oversight, so the last couple of weeks when I haven’t been working on my own stuff, I’ve been reading Donald Keene’s 20 Plays of the Nō Theatre (Columbia University Press, 1970), trying to rectify some of my ignorance. I’m still no expert, but I think it’s been pretty interesting, so I thought I’d do a little primer here for the curious.

The concept of Noh (or Nō) (能) was introduced by the Chinese to Japan as early as the 8th century CE, which is why even in Japanese its name uses Chinese characters rather than strictly Japanese kanji. This proto-Noh was called sangaku, which was a blanket term for a variety of performing arts including acrobatics and comic sketches, as well as song and dance routines. Slowly, sangaku would splinter into various sub-genres as it incorporated older, traditional Japanese art forms. These would included everything from religious Shinto rituals (kagura), to peasant agricultural folkways (dengaku), to dancing associated specifically with the entertainments of the imperial court (shirabyōshi), among others. And it was from these diverse influences that what would become recognized as Noh would coalesce in the 14th century under the patronage of the medieval shogunate.

The shōguns arose as political dictators out of the military classes in the late 12th century as the temporal power of the emperors declined, but by the 14th century there was an established give and take between the shogunate and the court. The emperor remained a divine spiritual figurehead living much as they had in the earlier centuries while the shōgun held all of the practical power. As originally outsiders from the court, the shōguns might have been more in touch with sangaku’s diversity than the more rigidly formal entertainments of the imperial aristocrats, but like many political upstarts, the shōguns seemed drawn to the court’s perceived refinement and they would oversee Noh’s final transformation into a highly stylized, upperclass art form. Noh would become the theatre of the ruling class, while the much brighter, intense kabuki, while still very popular across society, would always have a tinge of the vox populi about it.

[A Noh performance at the famous Itsukushima shrine]

Because they share some of the same roots in an aristocratic culture defined for centuries by a byzantine maze of rituals and artistic conventions, Noh as it became shares a similar feel to classical Japanese poetry—itself developed from Chinese influence. Translating poetry from any foreign language is notoriously difficult, but perhaps it is especially so with Sino-Japanese verse, which relies heavily on intricate webs of literary and historical allusion tied to the moment of the poem’s composition in terms of physical setting, season, and emotion. Even modern Japanese-speaking scholars struggle to suss out every nuance in ancient and medieval poetry; how much more challenging is it to do that, and then try to convey it all in another language as a non-native speaker? Japanese poems in particular also love strict rhyming conventions and homophones, both of which are basically impossible to convey in English without ruining the beauty of the original verse. In the English-speaking world, we’re used to thinking of Japanese poems, say, like haiku, as simplistic; three lines of 5-7-5 syllable poetry—boom!—haiku. But in Japanese, the poet must add important in-line rhythmic conventions and rhymes to this formula while still producing a tight, evocative poem that perfectly expresses the emotion of a fleeting moment in time.

It was command of this fussy, niche skill that could make or break the careers of both men and women at a court that put its emphasis on taste and refinement. A person who could produce what was seen as a “good” Japanese poem would have to be extremely well-educated, as well as emotionally appreciative of their environment, and quick-witted enough to tie all of this together in the Japanese equivalent of a bon mot. Not to mention a poem would be equally judged by a recipient on the beauty of the paper it was composed on and any accompaniment presented with it (like a sprig of an appropriate flower; or if the poem was written on a fan, did the scene painted on the folds correspond to the content of the poem?). This was what Sei Shōnagon’s gentleman callers were tasked with doing at dawn as they snuck out of her rooms—and she was not alone among the ladies of the court for dropping a bad poet like a bad habit. A lover who was a bad poet would be viewed as an uncultured boar who would reflect poorly on the lady who admitted him. Polygamy and extramarital affairs were condoned by the court of the period, but such things had to be managed with taste.

Similarly, Noh as it is performed today by the numerous acting schools who preserve it, is defined by the ritualistic nature of its conventions. Noh is not theatre as a spectacle; rather, like Japanese poetry, Noh is a mood more than it is a story. The actors and the audience are sharing feelings, usually of the nostalgic or melancholic variety, as opposed to the linear narrative more familiar to a western theater audience. The scripts of plays themselves are very brief—Keene’s twenty translated plays in the book I read filled barely 300 pages, with annotations. You can attentively read a Noh play in ten minutes, but the same play may take as long as two hours to perform according to its stylistic requirements. I’m embedding a performance of Matsukaze, one of the most famous Noh plays, that I found on YouTube at the end of this post to give the curious a chance to see what the plays look like as they are performed, but I will admit that even as a person who has a wide tolerance for a variety of art forms, even I was unprepared for how slowly the action proceeds in a Noh drama. I expected the actors’ movements to be stylized and slow, but even the sparse dialogue is spoken in a glacial, droning chant meant to echo the stage musicians’ songs that appear at intervals throughout the performance. I was immediately embarrassed by my western attention span, but that didn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it. Even if you don’t have the patience for the entire hour and half (which I totally get—this is a beautiful art form, but I’m hesitant to call it universally appealing), I highly recommend watching a few minutes from around the 13-minute mark, which is right about the time Murasame and her sister, the titular Matsukaze, appear on stage. Their reveal from the wings of the stage caused the hair on the back of my neck to stand up and the eerie slowness of their movements as they make their way to the center stage is like watching a found-footage horror film; the camera can barely keep up with the minuteness of their movement. This is a wonderful piece of mood setting as the audience is already aware that the sisters—spoiler alert—are ghosts.

[As a side note, I also highly recommend the Keene translations I read if you are interested in reading the plays. Keene was a renowned translator of Japanese literature (including the original version of The Pillow Book that I read), and despite its age, this edition has wonderful notes on the history of Noh, good plot synopses of the plays, and these wonderful illustrations in most of the plays that show you the basic tenor of the action occurring around the dialogue. This was really helpful as I was trying to follow along with the Matsukaze performance—the drawings helped me zero in on what was happening without needing subtitles.]

A traditional Noh stage is relatively simple, consisting of a small, gabled central stage (honbutai) which is connected to the backstage area by a long, covered gallery (hashigakari). The honbutai’s appearance recalls Noh’s beginnings in Shinto religious dances and the gabling is meant to mimic a Shinto shrine. Hashigakari literally means “suspension bridge,” and represents a liminal space between both the real world backstage and center stage for the actors, but also between the netherworld and the “real world” of the story. It also incorporates the audience into this in-betweenness as they are able to see actors approaching on the hashigakari before they reach the honbutai; part of Noh’s obsession with precision comes from the fact that there is effectively no offstage for the actors or the other performers during the performance. A story might tell you a character has retired from the scene, but typically that means they have moved to a scripted location onstage, as opposed to going back to the “mirror room” (kagami no ma) beyond the hashigakari. There are no major set dressings, aside from the traditional painting of a pine tree on the panel behind the musicians’ seat (kagami-ita) and a minimal number of simple props (common ones are a branch to represent a tree, or the frame a small hut to represent a house). Because Noh is focused on the expression of a mood, the focus is on the actors and it is them who bring the story to life for the audience, rather than the stage design. As such, it is also vital to note the season during which a play is set, which must conform to the real-world time of year. For example, Matsukaze is set during the Ninth Month, making it an autumn play. Therefore, if I was visiting Japan during the spring, I would not expect to be able to see a performance of it on my trip.

[Noh stage and theater]

The number of actors required to perform a Noh drama is also small. The principle role in the play is the shite (シテ), whom Keene refers to as the “doer,” the person who is the focus of the limited story/action, often accompanied by a tsure (ツレ), a companion. To continue with our Matsukaze example, Matsukaze is the shite and her sister Murasame is the tsure. The action is usually moved forward by the waki (ワキ), a character who serves as an audience stand-in, a stranger to the story who arrives and asks questions. There are a variety of other characters that may or may not be present depending on the needs of the story: a waki may also have a companion (the wakitsure, ワキヅレ); the kyōgen (狂言), a lower-class character such as a peasant or farmer who often also performs a comic interlude between Noh plays; and the kokata, a child character. A play requires at least a shite and a waki, but may have all of these characters.

In addition to the actors, every play has a jiutai (地謡), a chorus of six to eight people that sits stage left and accompanies the action much in the way it does in Greek theatre, and the hayashi (囃子), the four musicians who play throughout the performance and its transitions. The four instruments of Noh are the flute (nōkan 能管), the hip drum (ōtsuzumi 大鼓), the shoulder drum (kotsuzumi 小鼓), and the stick-drum (taiko 太鼓). Seated near the hayashi are the kōken, the stage hands who occasionally must move the few props around, but unlike in a western play they too are present onstage for the entire time.

Costuming is an important part of Noh drama in a way that set design is not. I wasn’t entirely wrong earlier when I called Noh “the one with masks” and masks are integral to Noh’s artistic identity, although not every character wears one. There are thought to be around 450 variations on roughly sixty types of Noh masks, representing everything from archetypal characters to a character specific to a single play. Like a character’s clothing, the mask is used to illustrate the character’s age, gender, and status, just as it would in classical Greek theatre. The shite always wears a mask, but whether or not any other character does is play-specific. For example, all female characters wear some kind of mask because, also like the Greeks, Noh acting began as a male-only profession. Today, the modern versions of the traditional Japanese Noh schools permit female performers, but this is a new development. So in Matsukaze, both the shite and the tsure wear masks because they are female characters, but the waki, who is a priest, does not. Masks also communicate if a character is a god or demon, or an animal, or even if they’re intoxicated. The masks may seem like they’d stifle the emotive abilities of the actors, but part of the long process of becoming a Noh performer is mastering the minute head gestures that bring the masks to life.

[A female mask tilted three different ways to demonstrate how the masks are carved in such a way that different angles produce different emotions. Many of the different Noh schools use heirloom masks handed down from generations of older performers, which help actors exude the timeless feel of Noh.]

There are traditionally thought to be five categories of Noh plays: god plays, warrior plays, woman plays, realistic plays, and demon plays, but some of the standard 240-some plays don’t fall into any category neatly. A typical slate of Noh performance generally will showcase five plays, with one from each category, but the number of surviving plays of each type is wildly variable, indicating not only audience preferences but those of the playwrights. For example, Keene notes that there are around sixteen warrior plays as compared with ninety-four realistic plays and that the often stiff (even by Noh standards) god plays were mostly used as the starting performance of five to kind of settle everyone in and get them in the mood for Mood. The overwhelming preference was for woman and realistic plays, and these are where one finds the most revered librettos. As you might have guessed, Matsukaze is a woman play and considered one of the best in any category. It was also written by the two most respected Noh playwrights of any era, Kan’ami Kiyotsugu (清次)(1333–1384) and his son Zeami Motokiyo (元清(c. 1363-1443), with Zeami writing the existing version of the play which was a revised edition of his father’s work. Kan’ami is widely considered the father of Noh drama as we know it and was integral in its exploding popularity among the shōgun class, while Zeami was the one who elevated the poetics of the genre. Now that I’ve laid out a lot of its elements, to wrap up I’m going to walk us through Matsukaze’s brief plot so you can see how it all comes together. Matsukaze is a good play to do this with because not only is it a Kan’ami/Zeami joint, it’s also a masterful example of a recurring story in Noh: that of an unexpected supernatural encounter.

As I mentioned earlier, the play is set in the autumn at Suma, a remote bay in Settsu Province, which was often a place of exile for high-ranking officials banished from court, most famously Prince Genji in Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji. In Genji, this is where the titular prince falls in love with the so-called Akashi Lady, whom he will have to (temporarily) abandon until he can send for her when he is recalled to court. Genji was a fictional amalgamation of several real-life men in the Heian court Murasaki served in, and Kan’ami does something similar by using the real Heian courtier-poet Ariwara no Yukihira (818-893) as the catalyst in his play. While in an exile at Suma similar to Genji’s, Ariwara has a love affair with two sisters, Matsukaze and Murasame, whom he must also leave behind with tokens to remember him by when he returns to the capital. Unlike the Akashi lady, who is socially inferior to Genji but still an aristocrat, Matsukaze and Murasame are peasants—fisher girls from the many fishing families who made their living in Suma. It is unclear whether he ever meant to return to the sisters, but either way he dies before he can and they in turn die of grief for him. Because of its associations with abandonment and exile, Suma would have been an immediate emotional cue to a Japanese audience on how they should be feeling about what was to come. So too would be the stated time of year; autumn is viewed as a transitional time in the Japanese culture, a time of great beauty, but a liminal space between living and dying, which fills it with a melancholic nostalgia for the passage of time—fitting for the longing associated with Suma. This is true of the sisters’ names as well—“Matsukaze” meaning “wind in pines” and “Murasame” meaning “autumn rain,” which ground the action in a particular season and mindset.

[Ariwara with Matsukaze and Murasame (Yoshitoshi, 1886)]

The play opens with the waki, an itinerant priest, making a journey to visit the shrines of the western provinces. Waki are often priests seeking alms or making pilgrimages to explain why a character might be traveling away from their home. He arrives at Suma and finds a strange memorial attached to a pine tree. Perplexed like a good waki, he finds the kyōgen, a local peasant, and asks to hear the story of the memorial. The kyōgen explains about Ariwara’s affair with the fisher girls and how they died of grief for him, asking the priest to pray for their souls. The priest does so at the memorial, then falls asleep. While asleep, he dreams that he sees the two sisters appear and begin to gather brine from the sea as they would have in life. He dreams that he wakes and seeks out lodging at the nearest hut, which he is provided by the two sisters, although at this stage he does not recognize them as the girls from the memorial. This is a typical element of Noh plays where there is a ghost involved—normally the waki has an interaction with the ghost, only to learn they are a ghost later. In the course of their conversation, the truth is revealed and the sisters recount their story again to the priest. The sisters display the court cloak and hat Ariwara left with them as keepsakes, with Matsukaze slowly donning them as an outward sign of the madness-tinged grief she is experiencing. They beg the priest to pray for their souls to be released from their lingering attachment to the mortal realm because their love of Ariwara (another extremely common Noh theme), only to slowly fade into the memorial pine and the jiutai tells the priest that all he dreamed was the sound of the girls’ names—wind in the pines and autumn rain.

So as you can see, this isn’t pulse-pounding action. This is twelve verse-pages of atmosphere. This is a chilly fall night where the moon is big enough that two ghosts can pretend to catch it in a brine ladle; a lone traveler having a spooky dream in an unfamiliar place. The regrets of one world bleeding into the next, and how the past can haunt the present. The lack of urgency by the performers becomes an accentuation to this rather than a detriment, and its this sense of being that gives Noh its punch. It draws the audience into this ethereal other realm and makes wooden masks and bare stages enough to build worlds upon.

%d bloggers like this: