In a very real sense, Noh (or No) is the creation of two men, Kanami (1333-1385) and his son Zeami (1363?-1443?). It had its antecedents, though. One important precursor was the Chinese form of entertainment known as Sanguku, which encompassed music, dance, juggling, magic, and humorous mime, among other elements. Sanguku was imported into Japan, where it became known as Sarugaku no No, or simply Sarugaku. The entertainment was widely popular among everyday people, and was performed at both Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. Another type of performance, Dengaku, had its origins in folk and Shinto agricultural rituals, and had developed into a serious, dramatic art form that was supported by the upper class. Also influential on Noh were the complex chants of the Shushi, members of a particular branch of Buddhism known as esoteric Buddhism. Other elements include the popular dance (and song) form known as kusemai, which had a strong, irregular beat that emphasized rhythm over melody. It probably influenced Noh by way of the shirabyoshi, female performers who appeared dressed as men. Thus the roots of Noh are various and complex.
In the fourteenth century, Sarugaku and Dengaku were more or less competing for patronage and resources. Kanami, the head of a Sarugaku troop, developed a new style of performance, and is often acknowledged as the inventor of Noh. Kanami trained his son Zeami in the new style, and a childhood performance by Zeami caught the attention of the shogun Yoshimitsu, who became the patron of first Kanami and then Zeami. Zeami further refined the art form, wrote many dramas, and wrote a treatise on theory and performance (which is still central today to the Noh theater). In Noh, Kanami and Zeami emphasized the serious aspects of performance that were especially characteristic of Dengaku. The broad humor of Sarugaku became the hallmark of Noh's sister genre, Kyogen. The two were, and still are, performed together. Apparently, in Zeami's time five Noh plays, one from each of five traditional categories, were alternated with four Kyogen.
Several of Kanami's Noh plays still exist, but they all appear to have been substantially reworked by Zeami. Many of Zeami's plays still exist. Also, other Sarugaku troupes were quick to adopt the new style, and their directors wrote plays for them. At one time the Noh repertoire may have constituted about a thousand plays, of which about 250 are still regularly performed (some of which are of modern compositions). Noh theater enjoyed noble patronage from its inception until the Meiji Restoration of 1868, when its patronage came to an abrupt halt. The art form fell on hard times, as it had never been widely popular, but a combination of public and private patronage allowed it to flourish again. World War II saw another temporary setback, but once again the genre flourishes.
Acting and Staging
In most respects, Noh drama is the antithesis of realism. Tradition strictly dictates which characters and roles must be masked and which must not be. The masks tend toward two extremes -- either they are so subtle as to be almost without expression, or they denote a single, strong emotion. The subtle masks, though, are quite subtle indeed. They are designed so that minute changes in the actor's posture change the interplay of light and shadow on the mask and evoke various emotions. Similarly, unmasked actors maintain a mask-like demeanor, suggesting emotion through posture and gesture. Costuming is elaborate, but highly stylized. The stage is assymmetrical, and staging is rigidly dictated (diagram). There is seating on the two open sides of the stage. Although the stage is now indoors, it remains roofed. The floor is highly polished to aid in the gliding dance movements, and under the elevated stage are large urns that help cause reverberation when a dancer stamps his foot. Props are minimal, but every Noh stage has a pine tree backdrop and three pine trees along the runway. One of the most important props is a fan, which can represent objects such as a sword or walking stick, or can be used to convey actions such as looking at the moon.