Book Takeaways || Japanese Nō Dramas

I chose to purchase Japanese Nō Dramas from a second-hand store because I have an interest in theatre following my English Studies. My awareness of English, however, does not discount my awareness in theatre from all around the world and these Nō (or Noh) dramas were intriguing also because I’ve always had an interest in Japanese culture.

I would love to see Nō performed live one day, though it is likely only if I make my way to Japan sometime in my life. Until then, I had to sate my curiosity with this anthology and some videos from YouTube.

Nō dramas are interesting because they have a standard stage layout that is followed by the actors and playwrights, and the textual layout always consists of three parts, an aspect that resembles classical poetry in its adherence to standards.
"Noh-stage" by Toto-tarou - Image created by Toto-tarou.. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons -
What also makes the format interesting is its use of miming, music, language, and dance, as well as awe-inspiring costumes and masks. The latter consist of several defined types of masks, which aid the audience in discerning the different thematic characters of the play. They are truly beautiful and detrimental to the play: some change expression based on the position of the actor's head, enabling emotions to be displayed quickly and simply.


Some of the pieces included in this anthology are very beautiful. Many of them deal with spiritual aspects, since most were written before Shinto religious practices came into being, as well as love. They are also mostly about freeing spirits dwelling in the world because of some heartbreak and involve happy coincidences where someone, usually a monk, has the opportunity of meeting with the spirits and helping them move on. In some way, this reflects the overarching aspects of Japanese horror stories such as The Ring and the Grudge.

Below are my favourites and if I have found a video of a performance - which is rare - it is included below.

The Damask Drum (Aya no Tsuzumi) is about an old man who falls in love with a consort, who tells him to beat on a drum to call her to him. But she tricks him with a drum that makes no noise. When he realises what she has done, he throws himself into a pond. His spirit hounds her from hell. Yes, it’s not a happy tale, but the words are beautiful. The videos below are not the best quality, and don't have excellent sound. I really just wanted a visual to go with the text, which you can read here, if you're interested.

Lady Han (Hanjo) is about a singing girl who entertains a guest and falls in love with him. She goes to find him at a shrine, where he has gone to pray that he will find her again. I could not find a video, but here is the text in PDF format.
The Well Cradle (Izutsu) is about a pair of children who grow up next to each other. They use the wall of the well the houses share to measure their growth. They fall in love and marry. Soon enough, the husband begins to stray but become jealous that she may also have a lover since she shows no jealousy. To find out, he pretends to leave one night to catch her in the act but only finds her pining for his presence. He never leaves her again. Read the text here. The video below is only a section of the play.

Kantan is about a man who is searching for enlightenment. He is given a pillow to sleep upon, on which he dreams he is living a full life as a king. He wakes to realise that life is just a dream. Read the text here. I haven't been able to find a performance of this play.
Tatsuta is about a woman bathing a divine cloth in the stream at Tatsuta Shrine. A monk comes to cross the stream and she warns him not to break the brocade of red autumn leaves littered on the surface or he will offend the Tatsuta Lady. While the text itself is confusing, it is an idealised version of Chino-Buddhist spirituality and it is really the spiritual background and explanation of the play that is beautiful. As the author says,

...the red leaves weave their pure brocade as they flow down the river. Since the Tatsuta Presence is of waer and rain, the Lady is also a water-woman, and water and leaves join in the river-borne brocade... ‘Does she become clouds and rain, the Tatsuta Lady, to stain with colour the bright autumn leaves?’ ... She may be the leaves, but secretly, she is also the cold rains that colour them and the wind and waters that drive them away. Her brocade clothes the [Celestial] Spear in time and the passing seasons.

In the play, this brocade forms the Womb Mandala of the world.

I haven't been able to find the text or a video for this play. That means you'll have to read the book! ;)

If you have found videos to my favourites, please share with me! I would love to watch them!

{Image credit [top image]: "Noh-ekagami Arashiyama" by 不明(スキャン:Sat666 (talk)) - 武田恒夫・中村保雄『宇和島伊達家伝来 能絵鑑 百五十番』(淡交社、1981年12月). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
[image of masks: "Three pictures of the same noh 'hawk mask' showing how the expression changes with a tilting of the head" by Wmpearl - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.}


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