At the Frist

A Brief Intro to Nōhgaku: Ancient Japanese Drama

Some years ago, I witnessed traditional Japanese theater live in Japan. After years of teaching world and Asian music courses that featured the rich traditions of Japanese theater, a fellowship allowed for the thrill of seeing Bunraku (half-life-size puppet drama), Kabuki (colorful rambunctious live theater), and Nōh in person at the National Bunraku Theatre (Osaka), National Theatre of Japan and Kabuki-za (Tokyo) and National Noh Theatre (Tokyo). Music City residents now have the opportunity to experience a tempting taste of this latter delight at the Frist Auditorium.

On Sunday, December 4, 2022, the Frist Museum will host Theatre Nohgaku, 2–3 pm. In conjunction with their exhibit: “Weaving Splendor: Treasures of Asian Textiles from The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art,” this special performance highlights excerpts from Nōh, the most ancient of Japanese theatrical arts. Given the complexities of this art form, unlike anything in American culture, it seemed important to provide this little primer on Nōh.

One point to remember in the harried bustle of American life is that many of the stories are influenced by the contemplative practices of Zen Buddhism, so be prepared to relax. Nōh is a glacially slow style of drama codified in the twelfth century from influences as early as the eighth-century Heian era. It is one of the world’s oldest continuing styles of drama. On a stage with virtually no sets or props, masked characters use suriashi—elegant gliding motions also found in some martial arts—when walking. Highly stylized gestures, called kata, indicate emotions with delicate subtlety. For instance, in the shiori-kata, the actor’s head is slightly bent down and one or both hands (depending on the emotional intensity), slowly slide down in front of the mask’s eyes, indicating the tears’ direction during sadness.

Nōh is accompanied by a small chorus (ji-utai) and instrumental ensemble (hayashi). The Ji, a narrator seated upstage, represents the inner thoughts of the main character, the shite (pronounced “shee-tay”). The hayashi, seated downstage near the backdrop, consists of a high-pitched bamboo flute (fue, also known as the nohkan), the kotsuzumi (shoulder drum), ōtsuzumi (hip drum), and taiko (frame drum). Although it is the only melodic instrument, unusually, the fue’s rhythm is the emphasis.

Hogaku: Japanese Traditional Music: Noh Theatre
Left to Right: Taiko (frame drum)., ōtsuzumi (hip drum), the kotsuzumi (shoulder drum), and fue, (also known as the nohkan)

The two main story types of Nōh are mugen and genzai.

Mugen plays feature a supernatural being, whether troubled spirit, creature, or demon as the shite. Typically, the waki (“wah-kee”), an important secondary character is a living traveler who meets the reincarnated version of the spirit who seeks its own freedom. In the play Ama, for example, a son traveling to perform a memorial ritual at the site of his mother’s death meets a woman who disappears after revealing herself as the incarnated spirit of his mother.

Genzai plays may also include a spirit, but the shite is always a live person. Sumidagawa’s shite is a mother whose kidnapped son is dead, but comes to her as a spirit.

There are also five main-character categories defined by whether the shite is a god, man, woman, madwoman, or creature.

The “god” plays, kamimono, like Takasago, often show the god as an elderly man and/or woman in the first half and the true embodiment of the god(s) in the second.

The “man” plays, shuramono, are tales of warriors seeking to escape the hell reserved for those who need redemption or forgiveness. In Atsumori, a genzai play named after a spirit, a warrior who has slain the beautiful youth Atsumori, renounces war, and becomes the monk Rensei. Praying for the soul of Atsumori, Rensei encounters his spirit and both find rest and redemption.

“Woman” plays, kazuramono, like Ama are kazuramono mugen plays where the main character is a woman who has died through loving self-sacrifice but returns as a spirit.

Plays like Sumidagawa are “madwoman” genzai (kyōjomono genzai) because the shite, a mother of a kidnapped son, is crazed by grief at his death.

Nue is a “creature” play (kirinohmono) featuring a creature shite left in the dark depths of the ocean after being killed. Its spirit prays that the moon can light its prison.

In the forthcoming event, Theatre Nohgaku, an internationally respected ensemble based in Japan will perform one individual dance, “Chū-no-mai,” serving dance’s traditional role as a palette cleanser, with excerpts from three mugen and one genzai.

Plot Synopses


In this kazuramono mugen play, a Buddhist monk is traveling to a temple built by Lord Ariwara no Narihira, a famed poet. He stops at the well in a nearby village to rest. While there, as he prays for the souls of Narihira and his wife, Lady Izutsu, a local woman tells him the story of how Izutsu still seeks her unfaithful husband in the afterlife. The woman disappears after revealing herself to be an incarnation of Izutsu. In the final scene before the monk wakes from his slumber, Izutsu comes to him in a dream, seeking her husband, dancing while dressed in Narihira’s robes and headdress.


Postcard Sumidagawa (ca. 1926)

In this kazuramono mugen, Fusazaki, a young nobleman has traveled to an island to do a Buddhist memorial for his long-deceased mother. Once there, he meets a humble woman whose livelihood is diving to cut seaweed from the ocean floor. She tells him the tale of another diver who bore a son with a high court official. In order to obtain noble status for her son, she agrees to retrieve a jewel stolen by the Dragon King whose castle is at the bottom of the sea. Knowing she cannot escape alive, but the dragons fear corpses, she stabs herself, stores the jewel in the wound, then shakes the rope to signal the watchers to pull her up as she dies. Fusazaki recognizes the story as that of his mother. Before the humble woman mysteriously disappears into the ocean, she gives Fusazaki a letter in which she reveals herself to be an incarnation of his mother. She seeks freedom from the limbo in which her spirit is trapped. Fusazki recites the Lotus Sutra for her and she ascends into Buddhahood dancing gaily.


This example of the kyōjomono genzai chronicles the tale of a mother who has traveled great distances trying to find her only child, a son kidnapped by child traffickers. Because she is so unkempt from her travels, the ferry boatman demands she prove her status in order to earn her fare. She recites a poem by Lord Narihira (see Izutsu). On the ferry crossing the Sumidagawa River, the boatman invites the passengers to a memorial for Umewakamaru, a child who had been left for dead by a slave trader exactly a year ago. As he died, he gave the villagers his parents’ names. The woman recognizes the child as her son and prays for his soul’s repose, invoking Buddha’s mercy through intoning chants of “Namuamidabutsu [I take refuge in Amida Buddha]” while beating a small gong. In the dark of night, her child’s spirit comes to her, but disappears when she tries to take him in her arms. As the sun rises, she is still sobbing at his tomb.


This kazuramono mugen play tells the tale of Hakuryō, a fisherman (waki), who finds a gorgeous feathered robe hanging on a pine tree branch by the water. Planning to take it home, he is stopped by a heavenly maiden (shite) who cannot return to the Moon Palace, home of the Buddhist entity of strength and wisdom, without her feathered robe as her wings. He barters the robe’s return for a chance to see her dance in it. Once the famed “Suruga-mai” dance ends, she disappears beyond the distant peaks of Mt. Fuji.

One Comment to A Brief Intro to Nōhgaku: Ancient Japanese Drama

  1. I’m about to travel to Japan and was looking for art reviews that would explain Japanese theatre to me. This is brilliant! Thank you to the author and MCR

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