Noh is a stylized and symbolic musical drama that has been handed down from the 14th century. Behind the symbolic and enigmatic masks and the simple stage, the tradition of Japan is to be felt by visitors to Noh theaters.
In Noh dramas, every human sentiment, such as loyalty, piety, love, jealousy or revenge, is expressed by actors, traditionally all male actors, through constrained and refined actions. The manner of expression is different from that of Kabuki, which is more dramatic and realistic.
Actors consist of the main player[シテ], the second player[ワキ], and the followers[ツレ], and sometimes the Ky?gen[狂言].
Main players use masks for some roles. Noh masks are proverbially expressionless themselves, but with the delicate movements of the player, they can express deep emotions.
Noh play employs two forms of music; instruments and human voice. The instrumental music is known as Hayashi[囃子], and uses a flute, small and large tabors, and a drum. The chanting[謡い] is divided into strong tones and lighter tones and these tones are chosen in accordance with the emotional intensity of the scene. The chanting is accompanied by Hayashi music.
Visitors to Noh theaters will notice a special stage somewhat different from the ordinary ones. The floor of the stage is made up of smoothed and unpainted Japanese cypress. It has a roof supported by pillars at each corner. A Noh stage consists of four sections: the square main stage which protrudes into the audience area, the right hand side floor for the chorus [地唄座], the space for the orchestra behind the acting area[後座], and the bridge-way for actors to enter or leave the stage[橋がかり]. A dignified pine tree is painted on the wall at the back.
Generally the main actor wears a mask, while no other actors are masked. It is made of wood and is lacquered. Masks are generally smaller than the performer's face. Great masterpieces of Noh masks have been handed down through many generations and they are very much valued.
Noh masks may be classified in 16 types, ranging from old men, old women, and young women to fairies, powerful gods, monsters, demons, and even wild animals.
Costumes are essential properties for Noh. They are usually very gorgeous, made of rich brocade. They are patterned on the basic styles of Kimono in the 15th to 17th centuries; the dresses of court nobles, warriors, civilians, monks, peasants and women. They must given a mystic effect when they reflected the gleam of candles in the old days. Wigs with black, white or red hairs also attract the attention of viewers.
Sometimes a classical dance taken from Noh dramas is performed dependently in a plain costume and it is called a plain dance[仕舞い].
This particular type or Noh drama is performed in the evening on an open-air stage usually set up in the precincts of a shrine. The stage is illuminated by blazing torches since the Noh plays are presented after dark. Following the traditional style, no electric lights are used. The setting enhances the feeling of mystic profundity, the characteristic of Noh drama. The most famous Torchlight Noh[薪能] are those of the Heian Shrine[平安神宮] in Kyoto and the Tsurugaoka-Hachiman Shrine[鶴岡八幡宮] in Kamakura.
Kabuki is thought to have had its origin in the Noh Play, how Kabuki stemmed from Noh is not clear. Anyway, toward the end of the 16th century, Okuni[阿国], a shrine maiden at the Great Shrine of Izumo[出雲大社] is recorded to have started a primitive prayer dance, and it has gradually been developed into Kabuki as we have now. Since the Tokugawa Shogunate prohibited women acting in public, Kabuki has been performed exclusively by male actors. Consequently even the roles of women are performed by men. Kabuki is a highly-stylized traditional play combined with singing and dancing. It may be compared to European grand operas. It is very colorful and sometimes quite spectacular. Kabuki plays are classified into three main types. Histories[時代物] often with scenes of exaggerated prowess[荒事], domestic genre-plays[世話物] including plays dealing with the lower class people [生世話物], and dances[所作事]. The major dramatists who wrote Kabuki plays were Monzaemon Chikamatsu[近松門左衛門] (1653-1724), who produced more than 100 dramatic love tragedies, and Mokuami Kawatake[河竹黙阿弥] (1816-1893), who wrote more than 300 realistic social dramas, many of which had rogues as the main characters.
During the early stage of the development of Kabuki, it was believed that the appearance of actresses on the stage had a corrupting effect on the morals of the audience and actresses were banned by the government. As a result, men acted the roles of women, and these actors were called the form of women [女形]. Those actors who wish to excel as Oyama even try to talk and behave just like women in their daily life.
One characteristic of Kabuki stage is the Flower Path [花道], an elevated passageway running from the stage to the rear of the theater through the audience. Hanamichi is used for the exits and entrances of important actors, with many impressive scenes taking place there.
Another characteristic is a revolving stage[回り舞台] which is equipped with a mechanism similar to a turntable. It is a device for the rapid shifting of scenes, bringing into view a scene that has been prepared backstage.
Kumadori is another Kabuki technical term meaning an exaggerated make-up style often used by actors when they play the roles of warriors or ruffians in the historical dramas. The object is to intensify the emotions an actor wishes to convey to the audience. In making up, the muscle and nerve lines are applied on the face with the colors of heavy red and indigo to represent the nature of the character and emotions; usually red to represent righteousness and indigo to show viciousness or evil.
Bunraku, also known as Ningy? J?ruri, dates back to the 10th or 11th century. However, it was not until the 17th century that Bunraku took its present form. In 1678, Giday? Takemoto[竹本義太夫] (1651-1714) established a Bunraku theater, Takemoto-za[竹本座], and originated the accompanying Giday?-bushi music, which has been handed down to the present day. Many puppet plays were written by the master playwright, Monzaemon Chikamatsu, whose skillful interpretation of human feelings appealed to theater goers.
The main puppets are manipulated by three puppeteers while the narrator[太夫] recites the story to the accompaniment of the shamisen. The unique charm of Bunraku lies in the combination of skillful action of the puppets manipulated by the puppeteers and the strident chant of the singer, which makes the audience forget the presence of puppeteers and sometimes moves them to tears and laughter.
The performance of the puppeteers is so skillful that some foreign visitors believe that the puppet is operated by electricity.