Experiencing Noh Theatre in Japan

by Abigail Mattingly  |  Published April 15, 2019

Hidden amongst the historic treasures of Japanese theatre lies the haunting stories of Noh; an archaic world of demons, ghosts and sin. During a trip to Kyoto, Japan’s former imperial capital, Abigail Mattingly spends four hours immersed in the intense and ethereal world of Noh.

Noh performer, Yasumasa Izumo, in full costume (Photo: Yoshiaki Kanda via Yokohama Noh Theatre)

Queuing outside the wooden Kanzekaikan Noh Theatre in Kyoto, Japan, feels a little surreal. The building seems to hold on to some ancient, enigmatic charm, creating an illusion of stepping back in time. The older generations of Japan, dressed in their Sunday bests, were standing gathered in groups, excitedly anticipating of the show.

Of all the ways to be entertained in Japan, Noh’s peculiar components had drawn me in, captured my attention, and taken around 70USD of my money for tickets to a 4-hour performance where I wasn’t going to understand a word. Regardless, something about the demonic, ominous masks of Noh created a relentless intrigue in me that needed to be satisfied.

The Kanzekaikan Noh Theatre in Kyoto (Photo: Abigail Mattingly)

The Noh Theatre

Strangely, upon entering the theatre and taking an unassigned red, velvet covered seat, there was something difficult to define in the atmosphere. Unlike most theatres, the Noh stage possessed no outward statement of its grandeur, which seemed to cap any pretence in the room, and instead synthesized a curious, but not misplaced, serenity.

Carved from Japanese cypress, the elevated Noh stage consisted of an open corridor acting as a stage entrance to the left that led to a square-shaped main stage. Throughout, wooden pillars supported a subtly curved, traditional roof. The backdrop hosted nothing more than a permanently positioned wooden panel, decorated with a simple painting of an Ume, Japanese plum tree.

The folklore of Noh is executed through Buddhist principles of minimalism. The string of simplicity throughout this make-up allows for a performance to be experienced on its own merits without outside distraction.

Two rows of instrumentalists and vocalists in plain, loose, grey clothing soon took the top-right corner of the stage and knelt solemnly. A gentle and repetitive, distinctly Japanese, rhythm was slowly constructed by the wooden flute and drums, whilst the chorus built up a steady, low-pitched hum. Two actors in traditional Japanese dress appeared from the stage door, and made a slow, steady walk across the length of the open corridor, taking great care to execute a refined method of placing one foot in front of the other.

A performance guide and postcard from the Noh theatre (Photo: Abigail Mattingly)

Act 1 – Toboku
The first act, Toboku, was a gentle introduction into the world of Noh, a simple story of monks meeting in the Spring by a plum tree in early bloom. After just fifteen minutes of a seventy minute performance, the monotonous continuity and pace of the performance was making me drowsy. I wasn’t excited. Was there something I was missing?

I looked around to check the reception of the crowd. Luckily, I wasn’t the only one feeling this way. An elderly man had nodded off, head hanging over his left shoulder, mouth wide open. I began to question how much of my valuable vacation time this was really worth. I had seen reviews online that named Noh the equivalent of a ‘Japanese Opera’, and one list even labelled it as something ‘not to-do in Japan’.

But as the show went on, I became more entranced by the repeated aural and visual impact. The story progressed, and smaller, more spontaneous actions by the protagonists gradually became magnified by the stability of the background noise, enabling the performance to shine, without extravagance. Sudden changes in beat, or bigger movements from the performers, created an anticipation that felt like a slow inhale, rather than a quick gasp.

My mind entered a clear, creative space, where I was able to access parts that had been put on autopilot, to pull ideas and comprehend more complex emotions that the show was presenting from the smallest changes in intonation. I began to understand; the engaging charm of Noh is that this simple formatting and defined minimalism allows the story to speak for itself without a need for excessive support.

This headspace that Noh created was impressive, and it felt like a kind of therapy. The two acts of Noh were separated by two acts of ‘Kyogen’; short comedies designed to provide some respite between the intense acts of Noh. They were necessary, because the second act of Noh, titled, Adachigahara, was about to get more intense than the first.

The haunting masks of Noh (Photo: Chris Ubik via Flickr)

Act Two – Adachigahara

Adachigahara, roughly translated to ‘the demon woman of the Adachi forest’, told the story of two pilgrimaging priests in search of a place to stay the night. The story began with a darkened stage, with a ‘woman’ in a narrow, wooden cage placed in the centre. Historically, Noh did not include women, and this performance was not an exception. The ‘woman’ was a male actor dressed in kimono, with a whitened Noh mask covering his face. The wooden mask had been splashed a bright red at the lips, and darkened around the eyes to create the illusion of eyelashes.

After some dialogue between the priests, the woman let herself free from the cage. She began to spin thread on an aged wooden instrument, described by the performance guide as her ‘spinning threads of her wretched solitude’. The complex emotions of the woman displayed so comprehensively. The continuous, slow motion of spinning thread was an outstanding creation, and was able convey a level of depth to the emotion one could only achieve by this kind of implicitness.

The stand-off between the priests and the demonic woman of Adachigahara (Photo: Abigail Mattingly)

The woman then exited stage to gather firewood for the evening, and the priests were left to discover rotting corpses inside the woman’s bedroom. When she returned, the pale mask was replaced by a demonic one, carved with a long, pointed noise and two horns. The woman was the devil in disguise, and the act ended with the priests vanquishing the devil from the woman’s body after a choreographed stand-off.

End Credits

Much like the time it takes for one’s tongue to adjust to spicy food, Noh is not something that the mind is easily adapted to. The performance requires the audience to experience a progression in state of mind: silence and calm is just not what we’re used to in today’s world that revolves around a level of capitalism requiring constant autopilot in a seemingly never-ending rush.

I could finally understand why crowds gathered to spend four hours here. Noh is said to create the Japanese concept of ‘ma’: a space of potential; and that’s exactly what it did. I left the theatre with a longing to somehow take a piece of it away with me, and it was that peace of mind, created from being immersed in such an intense, silent minimalism.