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Japanese Nō and Kyōgen theatre

Nō is a musical masked dance drama originating from a popular rural, religious entertainment called sarugaku. It flourished in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries under the guidance of Kan'ami (1333-84), his son, Zeami (1363-1443) and their successors. Nō came under the patronage of the Ashikaga shogunate (1333-1568) after Yoshimitsu saw Kan'ami's performance in Kyoto in 1374. Its development was highly influenced by Zen, although Nō plays were still performed in rural shrines, particularly during the period of Warring States (about 1467 to the late sixteenth century). It later became formalized and adopted as official entertainment under the Tokugawa shoguns.

The plots of the plays usually involve a meeting between a shite ('troubled spirit') and a waki ('bystander'). The shite relives the suffering of former lives and attempts to reach a peaceful state. The movement is slow and dance-like, gradually building to a climax. The narrative is provided by a chanter and chorus accompanied by flute and drums. The leading characters wear painted masks carved of cypress wood, which form a spiritual focus for the performance. The masks themselves appear to change their expressions with the movement of the actors. The costumes are extremely ornate, in contrast to the simple stage setting, which always has a backcloth painted with a pine tree, said to represent the pines of the Kasuga shrine in Nara.

The solemn austerity of most Nō plays contrasts with Kyōgen, the comic interludes which come between the plays. They are usually about clever servants who trick their daimyō masters.

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