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The Early History of the Noh Play: Literacy, Authorship, and Scriptedness

From: Monumenta Nipponica
Volume 68, Number 2, 2013
pp. 163-206 | 10.1353/mni.2013.0033

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Noh theatre, a subtle and sophisticated masked musical drama, is one of the most celebrated and studied of Japan’s literary and theatrical traditions. Noh employs both narration and enactment, using several arts: mimicry, singing, dance, drumming, and flute playing, as well as such ancillary arts as mask making and costume and prop design. In addition, it has its own prescribed stage, with special methods of construction, design, and maintenance. Noh is much more than the acting out of a story; it has religious roots and exists on the border between entertainment and ritual. At the same time, it is profoundly literary; most of its master-works reveal their playwrights to have been familiar with both Japanese and Chinese classics, employing a diction based on allusion to earlier works.

Noh has been continuously performed for more than six centuries, with several unbroken lines of specialists, all claiming origins in the fourteenth century. Growing out of a genre of popular plays, called sarugaku (also read sarugō), noh can be traced back at least as far as the late Kamakura period. The sarugaku plays were included in the repertoires of a number of performance traditions, some of which were transmitted by za, or troupes affiliated with religious or public institutions. The most prominent troupes in the fourteenth century that put on plays (in addition to other types of performance) were sarugaku za and dengakuza. Whether and to what degree the plays that were called sarugaku had any special connection with the troupes called sarugaku is not clear.

Sarugaku as a performance tradition can be traced back to Chinese entertainments imported into Japan in the Nara period, but by the fourteenth century it had gone through numerous transformations. By then, sarugaku troupes were associated with several religious institutions; their associations with such institutions in Yamato, Ōmi, and other provinces are particularly important in tracing the history of noh. The dengaku performance tradition derived originally from agricultural work songs, but had evolved beyond recognition. Two troupes (the “new” shinza and “original” honza) became particularly prominent in the Kamakura period, winning the patronage of warrior leaders in Kamakura. This patronage continued in the fourteenth century under the Ashikaga shoguns in Kyoto.

Beyond the repertoires of these particular groups of performers, the fourteenth century also inherited a number of other performing arts traditions. For example, in large temples, monks and acolytes performed entertainments, called ennen, for their own pleasure. Ennen included popular dances and songs, and also possibly plays, although the details are unclear.1 The warrior elite, for their part, had a tradition of banquets that they brought to Kyoto at the start of the Muromachi shogunate in the late 1330s. At such banquets, party songs called sōga, or enkyoku, were commonly offered, as were the newly popular kusemai, a genre of song accompanied by dance in which the beat took precedence over the natural rhythm of the words. Another occasion for the performing arts was the shrine festival. The most famous was probably the Gion shrine festival, a revival of which—the Gion Matsuri—is still celebrated in Kyoto. These events included processions in which various types of performers paraded through the streets; the festivals culminated in sacred dances, performed at shrines by shrine maidens and priests. Lastly, public performances called kanjin were organized by temples and other institutions to raise money. The increase in the popularity of plays in the fourteenth century was intimately bound up with the search, by those who organized kanjin, for entertainments that large numbers of people were willing to pay to see. Both dengaku and sarugaku troupes performed plays at kanjin in the provinces and in the capital.

When scholars consider how these plays developed into the refined art of noh theatre, they pay a great deal of attention to two actors, Kan’ami (1333–1384) and his son, Zeami (1363–1443), ancestors of today’s Kanze school.2 These two men are generally credited with having established the new noh theatre, writing its plays and developing its theories on training, acting, and aesthetics. Their plays, as well as those written by certain of Zeami’s pupils—his son Motomasa (1401?–1432) and his son-in...

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