Noh (能) : A play that was loved by Samurai

春日神社ー篠山ー翁奉納Noh is derived from the Japanese word for “skill” or “talent” and is a major form of classical Japanese musical drama that has been performed since the 14th century. The art was cherished and supported by the samurai class, especially by the high ranking ones.

It is the oldest major theater art still performed regularly today. Traditionally, a Noh program includes five Noh plays with a comedic kyogen play in between each Noh play, even though an abbreviated program of two Noh plays and one kyogen piece has become common in the Noh presentations of today.

Noh is often based on tales from traditional literature of a supernatural being transformed into human form as a hero narrating a story. atsumori_ghost 2Noh integrates masks, costumes and various props in a dance-based performance, requiring highly trained actors and musicians. Emotions are primarily conveyed by stylized conventional gestures while the iconic masks represent the roles such as ghosts, women, children, and old people. Written in an ancient Japanese language, the text “vividly describes ordinary people of the twelfth to sixteenth centuries”.

Having a strong emphasis on tradition rather than innovation, Noh is extremely codified and regulated by the iemoto (家元)  system. Iemoto is is a term used to refer to the founder or current Grand Master of a certain school of traditional Japanese art. It is used synonymously with the word soke (宗家) when it refers to the family or house that the iemoto is head of and represents.

Why was Noh cherished and loved by samurai? I believe there were at least four reasons. I will list them below. The first two came from a brief research I did and the last two are my own ideas. I have never studied Noh formally nor practiced it, so I could easily be wrong with my ideas. I welcome a constructive opinion from anyone who is familiar with Noh.

Reason 1:

After the battle of Sekigahara, Tokugawa captured the central power so as to govern all of Japan and so a peace period of 250 years had started. During the war period of the 16th century the fighting arts were the most important training for a samurai. But in the Edo (Tokugawa) period, a samurai was expected to learn the cultural disciplines along with the martial arts. The cultural disciplines included the tea ceremony, poetry, brush painting and Noh playing (note: though they were not allowed to play the real Noh with a mask on but they were allowed to if it was done without a mask).without mask In modern day Japan, a salesman in Japan is expected to learn how to play golf and also how to sing in a karaoke bar. In the Edo period a samurai was expected to learn Noh to entertain their lord and the visiting samurai dignitaries.

Reason 2:

I understand that it takes many years to master the art of Noh. Most of the actors start training when they are only 3 years old. The training for a samurai also starts when a child is very small and takes years to master all the fighting arts. In fact, the body movements such as walking, breathing, etc of Noh are very similar to that of the samurai martial arts. Therefore, the samurai appreciated the dedication and commitment the Noh players had to give.

Reason 3:

OniNoh is often based on a tragic subject from the traditional literature where a supernatural demon transforms into a human ghost form hero narrating the story. The life expectancy in that period was estimated to be some where in the 20s. In addition, a samurai had to live with a risk of throwing his life away in a battle or a fight at any moment in their daily life. I can easily guess that they could really appreciate a fleeting life and enjoyed a tragic play.


Reason 4:

The last one is also my own thought but it may be an interesting one. The armour for the high ranking samurai came with a face cover called a Menpo (面頬).

Menpo 6 kinds

This was used to protect the face, of course. At the same time I think there was another purpose for wearing one. I have a feeling that the samurai leaders wanted to cover their face, on purpose, to shield their expressions. He may lose some of his family members in a battle who were fighting with him and so he cannot show his crying face to his men. He may become angry, frustrated or even fearful but he was expected not to show those feelings. A samurai leader was expected to remain calm and collected no matter what the situationMenpo 2 was in a battle. He was not supposed to show his feelings such as sadness, anger, frustration and of course, fear. It was, I can easily imagine, extremely difficult to shield his feelings in a battle. So, I think a menpo was used to help a samurai leader hide his true feelings.

In Noh an actor wears a mask and he must be able to express his feelings through his body movements as he cannot show them with his face. As noted previously the actors start to practice Noh when they are only 3 years old and they learn in time how to move precisely to express the feelings. The Noh play is typically a tragedy rather than a happy story. By observing this, a samurai leader could really relate to his own situation. I think this was one of the reasons why the samurai, especially the high ranking ones, favored the Noh plays. What do you think?  Noh masks 3                         

I welcome input from the readers. It would be great if some of the readers happen to know something about Noh and if they can share some different ideas. We want to know why you think this masked play, Noh was favored by the samurai.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *