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Composition of Noh

Present Time Noh and Mugen Noh

Many noh are taken from the Heike Monogatari (Tale of the Heike) and the Konjaku Monogatari (Tales of Long Ago), very popular stories from the Muromachi Period (1336-1573). Within these, noh can be divided into two categories genzai noh (present time noh) and mugen noh (phantasmal noh). Genzai noh, are noh with stories happening in the present. While mugen noh have more complicated stores that involve dream states or visions intersecting with present time stories as well. Though perhaps confusing, each of these types of noh have a system of patterns, that once learned can make following easier.

The Structure of Mugen Noh

A traveler visits a place and meets a local person. 

The local person tells of an incident that occurred there.

Finally the local person says, “I am the person related to that incident” and then vanishes.

This is the end of the first half and is known as the maeba. At this point the protagonist or shite is behind the curtain offstage and the interval or naka iri begins.

Following the naka iri, the shite re-emerges from back stage for the noh’s second half or the nochiba.

The spirit of the person from the first half then appears to the traveler in his dream and through dance, in some way re-enacts the event discussed in the first half. The traveler then awakens from the dream.

With that in mind, let us take a closer look at how the structure plays out in an actual noh.

Summary of Izutsu

Let’s take a look at the noh Izutsu as an example. This is a mugen noh by Zeami considered one of his greatest masterpieces. The story is drawn from the Ise Monogatari or the Tales of Ise. A summary of the noh follows.

Maeba (First half)
or the souls of Arihara Narihira and his wife. A village woman appears.

The woman, while drawing water from the well and tending to an old grave, tells of Narihira’s infidelity and his eventual realization that his own wife was not having an affair and his re-falling in love with her. She then tells the priest, “The two were childhood friends and they often played around this well, even when they became adults. I am the woman of this well and the man’s wife.” Having revealed herself she disappears.

Naka iri

Nochiba (Second half)
The priest decides to pray for the soul of the woman of Izutsu, Narihira’s wife. Then, while sleeping, the spirit of the woman appears to him wearing the robe of Narihira. She then dances retelling the story, conjuring thoughts of Narihira and seeing her reflection in the waters of the well. Before long, dawn breaks, the woman vanishes and the priest arises.

56 For the Noh Play Database entry of Izutsu, click here.

In the first half, a village woman relates to a traveling priest, the episode of Narihira and the woman of Izutsu. As she says, “Actually, I am the woman of Izutsu” revealing her true self and then disappears. Following the interlude, in the second half the spirit of the woman of Izutsu appears to the priest in a dream wearing the cloak of Narihira and dances about her longing for him. The woman who had appeared in the first half to the traveling priest, then appears to him in his dreams and in this way shows us the typical form of a mugen noh.

The Appearance of Living People, The Development of Genzai Noh

In mugen noh, the shite is either a ghost, vengeful spirit or some otherworldly character. In genzai noh, the shite portrays a living person whose story develops throughout the piece rather than reliving the past. Examples of genzai noh where mothers are searching for lost children are Sumidagawa (Sumidagawa River), Miidera (Miidera Temple) and Sakuragawa (Sakuragawa River). Funabenkei (Benkei on the Boat) is an example of a genzai noh in which the famous general Yoshitsune is escaping to the western provinces of Japan.


Roles in Noh

The main performer in a noh is called the shite. The range of characters that a shite can portray is vast, including: gods, warrior ghosts, female ghosts, madwomen, living men or women, or fanciful otherworldly beings like tengu (long-nosed goblins) or dragons. In the first half of a noh the shite is called the maeshite or maeshiite, and in the second half the shite is called the nochishite or nochijite. In a mugen noh, the maeshite and the nochishite may be completely different characters but are almost always played by the same performer.

A noh really centers on the shite and could be called, “shite-centric.” It is generally the role of the shite to not only perform the main role in a noh, but to act as both producer and director in stage action as well as casting to a degree.

Another role, the waki, while known as the “secondary role,” is in some ways an equally important part of a noh and included in nearly every noh. The waki plays a variety or roles like a traveling priest or the former foe of the shite, but in a mugen noh there is one large difference. The waki is always a “living” character. In the mugen noh, it is generally that the shite is in some way afflicted and the waki is there to help the shite receive some kind of release.

It is not at all unusual in noh to have just a shite and a waki as the main players or tachikata on the stage. Tachikata are the performers portraying characters on stage.

In addition, there are sometimes accompanying performers with the shite or the waki. In this case, they are known as shite tsur or waki tsure respectively. An attendant to the shite’s character (not a stage attendant) is known as a tomo. There are also roles for children in noh. These roles are called kokata. A kokata does not necessarily have to play the role of a child, but it is a role designed to be played by a child.

In mugen noh the maeba and the nochiba are separated by the naka iri in which the waki receives advice from a local person regarding the encounter he has just had. In these cases the role is played by a kyōgen actor in a role known as the ai kyōgen or sometimes simply as the ai.

56 For Shite-kata click here.

56 For Other roles click here.


Types of Noh

Noh can be divided into five different categories: god, man, woman, mad-woman, demon. In a full noh program, on noh from each category would be played. This is known as goban date. The tradition of gobandate was developed in the Edo period. In between each noh a separate kyōgen play would be performed. A typical gobandate would start in the morning with an invigorating god noh followed by the brave tales of a warrior noh. This would be succeeded in the afternoon by the beauty of a woman’s story. Heading into evening would be a madwoman’s tale, which would employ a variety of emotions. When evening fell, the time for otherworldly spirits to be awakened, a demon noh would be performed. Due to the exhaustive number of hours required of both performer and audience, the gobandate is rarely held today. However, these categories are carefully considered when deciding a noh program today.

In addition, when a gobandate is being performed, it is proceeded by a piece called Okina. Originally developed by the Okina Sarugaku this has become to be known as “the noh that is not a noh” as it is more of a ritual ceremony than a noh. Due to its revered status, it is performed as an opening for New Year performances and at important anniversaries or events.

Noh Categories and Examples

God (First Category)
Noh in which the shite plays the role of a god are called (shobanme mono). Since these noh also sometimes accompany Okina, they are also known as waki noh (accompanying noh). The appearance of a god can signify the promise of peace, happiness, abundant crops or the like. Often the maeshite is in the form of an old man and the nochishite enters as the true embodiment of the god. Takasago, Oimatsu and Yoro are noh in this category.
Man (Second Category)
Men are the main role in this category and the shite usually plays the tormented soul of a warrior. This category is also known as shura mono (warrior hell). These tales are taken predominately from the Heike Monogatari (Tales of the Heike) in which a warrior is seeking redemption or forgiveness from warrior hell, where all warriors are fated to enter. Noh in this category include: Atsumori, Kiyotsune, Yashima, Tomoe.
Woman (Third Category)
The woman category is also known as kazura mono (wig noh). It is the central noh in the gohbandate and is usually about the ghost of a woman and the themes center around love and suffering. Often the ghost is condemned to wander the earth trapped somehow by the love that she feels. Noh in this category include Hagoromo, Izutsu, Matsukaze, Teika.
Crazed (Fourth Category)
Also known as kyōjo mono (crazed woman) or kurui mono (crazed), in these noh, the shite takes the role of a crazed person. In this case, crazed is not meant in terms of being clinically insane, but rather being driven mad by some terrible situation that has befallen them. Zatsu noh (Other noh) is another name sometimes given to this category as noh which do not easily fit in elsewhere are often put in this category. Noh in this category include: Sumidagawa, Hyakuman, Kanawa, Dōjō-ji .
Demon (Fifth Category)
Shite performing in this category portray demons, goblins, fairies, dragons and otherworldly creatures. As this is the fifth and final noh in a gobandate it is also known as kiri noh mono (ending noh). With intense dance, complicated drumming and lively music, these noh are in some ways the flashiest pieces. Noh in this category include: Nue, Sesshōseki, Kurozuka/Adachihara, Shōjō.

56 You can look up each noh by category in the Noh Play Database.

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