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History of Noh

The roots of noh go back around 1,300 years, when a performing art calledsangakuwas brought over from China. It merged with Japanese comic theater and became a new form of entertainment calledsarugaku about a thousand years ago.Sarugakufeatured short dances and skits, consisting of impersonations and plays on words.

Nyuu Shrine

An old stage at Nyuu Shrine in Nara. (©Ken Yoshikoshi)

By around the thirteenth century, several professional sarugaku troupes sprung up. The skits grew into longer stories, and the songs and dances became more sophisticated.

Even bigger changes came in the mid-fourteenth century, when Kan'ami and his gifted son Zeami turned sarugaku into an art form called noh. Kan'ami introduced complex rhythms, replacing a monotonous singing style, and developed a very advanced philosophy. Zeami went even further, writing and performing in plays that touched and deeply moved those who saw them.

Nishihongwanji Temple

The North Stage at the Nishi Hongwanji temple in Kyoto
dates from the sixteenth century. (©Ken Yoshikoshi)

Although noh has evolved since then, the basic shape and style hasn't changed all that much. Kan'ami and Zeami won a wide following--among not only the villagers but also the country's most powerful politicians, including shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358-1408). Military leaders who lived much later were also enchanted by noh, including warlords Oda Nobunaga (1534-82), Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-98), and Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616). During the Edo period (1603-1868), the study of noh was incorporated into the samurai's formal training by several clans.

The country's modernization drive following the Meiji Restoration (1868) nearly killed noh, since the nation's leaders rejected everything associated with the samurai. Noh also faced a crisis during and after World War II. But the tireless energy of a few dedicated noh artists saved it from extinction, and it is beginning to win a new, wider following. In May 2001 it gained worldwide recognition when the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization proclaimed it as one of 19 "masterpieces of intangible heritage."

Before World War II, women were not allowed to perform noh, but today there are more and more women professionals. There are also a rising number of overseas performances, and it's not rare for the audience to include many foreigners.

Today, noh is performed in major cities around the country, and Kyoto--the nation's ancient capital--is no exception. There was a performance there recently in which school kids had a big part. Let's see how they prepared for the stage and how these future noh professionals spend their everyday lives.