Noh - the word
In the Japanese language, the word "Noh"
has become synonymous with "theater", although
originally this word denoted an actor or dancer's skill,
deriving from a verb meaning "to be able".


The construction of Noh stages has not changed since Edo period of the 17th century when the "Tokugawa Government Noh Stage Design Standards" were established.
Since all Noh performances were held outside, the stages were built accordingly. It was not until 1882 that the first Noh stage was built indoors at Shiba Park in Tokyo.

Stage (Butai)
The Noh stage consists of three parts. The first is the mirror room, where the main actor dons the mask, the second is the Bridge of Dreams, which connects the mirror room to the the third part, the main stage or butai.

The raising and lowering of the Five-Colored curtain that leads from the mirror room marks the beginning and end of a Noh performance. Woven of damask in five colors - purple, white, red, yellow, and green - the curtain symbolizes the Five Elements - earth, water, fire, wind, and air - which separate this world from that of the Pure Land.

Noh Music

The instrumental music of Noh, created by three drums and a flute, is called hayashi. It serves to punctuate the entrances and exits of the actors, and mark the progression and changing moods of the play. It combines with the songs of the chorus and actors to create a rhythmic structure serving as a support for the drama.

Calls (Kake-goe)
Between beats, the drummers call out specific meaningless syllables, or kake-goe, whose only purpose is to control the rhythm.

Noh - Masks and Costumes
There is a Japanese expression
which describes an impassive face as being
"like a Noh mask".


Noh masks
are far from being impassive.

expressions change with
movement, light, and the angle of viewing.
By tilting the mask upwards,
actors can express
a range of
joyful emotions.
By tilting it down,
they cloud the mask and
express a variety of sad emotions.
The mask can also be moved quickly
or slowly from side to side, to express
strong emotions, such as fury, or despair.

Mask Making
Noh masks are carved from a single piece of Japanese cypress. It is coated more than forty times with a mixture of gesso and glue and then painted with colors that have been established through long Noh traditions. The outline of the hair and eyes is drawn in black ink. Throughout this process, the carver continually checks the mask and its reaction to the light in the theater where it is to be used.

Robes (Shozoku)
Noh costumes are called Shozoku or robes. Regardless of the character being represented the costumes must always create an effect of luxury and elegance. They must give the characters a sculptural presence. Garments are layered and textured, with wide sleeves to accommodate expansive gestures. They are made of stiff materials so that their patterns can not be deformed by folds.

The Fan
The shape and handling of the fan not only suggest objects - such as a dagger, and the rising moon - but is also used to indicate actions, like listening, or sleeping.


Dance (Mai)
Noh dancing is called mai. It is a slow, stylized dance built out of a combination of about two hundred and fifty gesture patterns called kata.

Kata is a minimal instant of expression: movements that are stopped at the exact moment when the muscles are tensed.
Some kata - such as slashing with a halberd, thrusting with a sword, reading a book - are realistic.
Other kata are symbolic - for example, raising the hands to the face and lowering them to express weeping; walking in standing motion to show travel; turning the mask left and then right to symbolize searching; or turning the head upwards and to the side meaning looking at the moon.
Others still are very formal - extending the fan; stamping on the stage to make it resound; opening the arms; or moving in zigzag to mark the start and finish of a dance.

Voice (Utai)
Utai is a form of song or poem composed of phrases consisting of twelve syllables; an amount easily pronounced in one breath. This is a fundamental rhythmic unit in all traditional forms of Japanese poetry. It harmonizes with the eight-beat measure used by the Noh musicians.

The Flower (Hana)

In the first half of the 15th century, Zeami Motokiyo wrote the Book of the Flower, or Fushikaden, and twenty other treatises in which he explored the principles, aesthetic and philosophical, governing the production of Noh.


Noh's theatrical message is neither moral nor narrative, it is simply an expression of beauty.


The achievement of hana, or the "flower", is the goal of every Noh performer.


the Way of the Noh,
is not only a commitment and a discipline,
but a practice of humility.

Information and screen captures were taken from the CD-ROM
Masks : Faces of the Pacific produced by Marek Gronowski

Japan | West-East