Nō is a traditional Japanese theatre form originating from 14th century sarugaku (monkey-music), entertainments consisting of juggling, dancing, singing, pantomime and short comical acts. Sarugaku was performed to enliven Shinto and Buddhist festivals. Around 1400 refinements were made in the performances, largely by father and son Kannami Kiyotsugu and Zeami Motokiyo. Zeami became the most important figure in the history of nō, and many of the plays still performed today are said to be written by him. He also wrote extensively about the theory and practice of nō, but his writings have been a closely guarded secret for many centuries, treasured by the families of nō actors and handed down from father to son through the generations.

Everything in nō is bound by tradition; the form of the stage, the acting and dancing by the actors, the music, the masks and costumes, the plays themselves and even the order of the plays in the different seasons are all subject to fixed. Many actors come from families of actors, and even certain parts are played by members of the same family for generations. The same is true of the musicians, many of whom come from a long line of nō-musicians.

There are four main instruments in nō, three kinds of small drums and a flute. The drums are called ko-tsuzumi, a small hand drum hold on the left shoulder, o-tsuzumi, a slightly larger hand drum held on the left leg and a taiko, a small drum supported on a wooden frame and hit with two sticks. The flute is called fue, and is made of bamboo. On it is played a wavering melody of only about three notes, but they are high, piercing and loud. All three percussion players shout loudly during their performance.

The texts in nō are half sung, half recited by the actors, assisted by a choir of male singers, who take over parts of the text.

The masks and costumes in nō are spectacular, and the restrained movements create a world far removed from ours. Nō is all about the world of ghosts, dreams and gods.

But although all the visible and audible elements of nō are aimed at creating this other-worldly atmosphere, and this is the element that everybody who ever witnessed a nō performance always is excited about, nō is really a literary art form. The texts are written in an archaic and poetic Japanese full of references to older Japanese and Chinese literature, making it very hard to understand fully by a modern audience. To give you some idea about the texts, here follows an excerpt from the play Hagoromo, about a fisherman who finds the feathered robe of an angel, and is only willing to give it back to her after she danced for him. The place where this is supposed to have happened, the beach at Mio, is still visited by tourists today.

David van Ooijen

Fisherman:
     Now I have landed at the pine-wood of Mio and am viewing the beauty of the shore. Suddenly there is music in the sky, a rain of flowers, unearthly fragrance wafted from all sides. These are no common things; nor is this beautiful cloak that hangs upon the pine-tree. I come near to it. It is marvellous in form and fragrance. This surely is no common dress. I will take it back with me and show it to the people of my home. It shall be a treasure in my house.

Angel:
     Stop! That cloak is mine. Where are you going with it?

Fisherman:
     This is a cloak I found here. I am taking it home.

Angel:
     It is an angle’s robe of feathers, a cloak no mortal man may wear. Put it back where you found it.

Fisherman:
     How? Is the owner of this cloak an angel of the sky? Why, then, I will put it in safe keeping. It shall be a treasure in the land, a marvel to men unborn. I will not give back your cloak.

Angel:
     Oh pitiful! How shall I cloakless tread the wingways of the air, how climb the sky, my home? Oh, give it back, in charity give it back.

Fisherman:
     No charity is in me, and your moan makes my heart resolute. Look, I take your robe, hide it, and will not give back.

Angel:
     Like a bird without wings, I would rise, but robeless

Fisherman:
     To the low earth you sink, an angel dwelling in the dingy world.

Angel:
     This way, that way. Despair only.

Fisherman:
     But when she saw he was resolved to keep it …

Angel:
     Strength failing.

Fisherman:
     Help none …

Chorus:
     Then on her coronet, jewelled as with the dew of tears, the bright flowers drooped and faded. O piteous to see before the eyes, fivefold the signs of sickness corrupt an angel’s from.

Angel:
     I look into the plains of heaven, the cloud-ways are hid in mist, the path is lost.

Chorus:
     Oh, enviable clouds, at your will wandering for ever idle in the empty sky that was my home! Now fades and fades upon my ear the voice of Kalavink [bird of heaven], daily accustomed song. And you, oh you I envy, wild-geese clamorous down the sky-paths returning; and you, O seaward circling, shoreward sweeping swift seagulls of the bay: even the wind, because in heaven it blows, the wind of Spring I envy.

Translation: Arthur Waley

Back to Things Japanese