Photo: Yuko Takeda

Noh Theatre: an ever-evolving tradition (Part 2)


Written on April 11, 2018 by Yuko Takeda

To read Part 1, Click Here

(3) Noh masks

One of the distinct features of Noh theatre is the masks. There are about 60 archetypes with the total of about 250 variations. Only Shite actors, the ones who play the leading (protagonist) roles, wear masks in plays. With a mask and an elaborate costume on, the actor carries up to 40kg of layers to walk on the stage. Mr. Umewaka shows us several major masks to tell about the details of each.

First, he raises Koomote小面, a young girl of 15 to 16 years old. This mask represents innocence with neatly combed thick strands of hair on each side. In the old days, women used to shave off their eye brows and draw ones on the forehead.

Next up is Wakaonna 若女, a young woman. A difference between Koomote and Wakaonna is how the hair is drawn. With Wakaonna, you see three thin strands of hair on each side, expressing more life experience than the younger mask.

Fukai 深井, a 40- to 50-year old woman, has a more protruded forehead and little wrinkles on the cheeks. From the mask of this age and older, the corner of the mouth starts to lower. She does various physically demanding household chores, which has caused the skin to darken, close to the real skin color.

Rōjo 老女 is an old woman. She has sunken cheeks and eye sockets, a more protruded and narrower forehead. Her hair is thinner and whiter, internalizing more life experience than the younger ones.

Rōba 老婆 is even older than Rōjo. Her eyes are smaller with a softer facial expression. Her hair is straight, meaning that her life experience and wisdom are purified and internalized.

When you look at all the masks at once, there is a series of beautiful transitions of a woman’s life.

“There are a few female participants today. And they might be mad at me when I say this, but you know that when women get angry, it’s scary,” Mr. Umewaka makes a joke as he moves onto the next series of masks. In Noh drama, there are several plays that depict women who have turned into Oni鬼, a Japanese ogre that often displays evil or demonic nature and has horns. Mr. Umewaka shows several masks for each phase of Oni transformation, from the beginning to the end.

In all masks, the reason or the trigger for women to become Oni has something to do with anger caused by unrequited love or betrayal of romantic nature or profound disappointment in unmet expectations. Her anger, therefore, is rooted in sorrow. If you look closer to the following four masks, you’ll notice how all the eyebrows have lowered curves, expressing sadness. If one is purely angry, eyebrow curves would be raised.

First up is Deigan 泥眼, literally meaning “mud eyes.” Her eyes become yellow. The corner of the mouth is lowered even further. Slightly tangled hair strands expressed a troubled mind.

Hashihime 橋姫 knits her eyebrows further with their curves lowered. Her skin color changes to red.

Namanari 生成 is even a step closer to full-blown Oni. She has tiny horns and fangs. Rough hair expresses the anguish of her mind

The final stage of the transformation is Hannya般若 with full-grown horns, glaring yellow eyes and rough hair.

Looking at them side by side, I am just amazed by subtle yet vibrant details of these masks.


Mr. Umekawa also shows us two more masks.

Shishiguchi 獅子口, literally meaning “the mouth of a lion,” has its mouth wide open as if to say an open vowel “A.”  Unlike the Oni masks, Shishiguchi’s eyebrows are raised, expressing mighty anger and masculine strength.  

Chorei-beshimi 長霊べし見 is a bandit or theif with his mouth closed as if to say a closed consonant “N.” His eyebrows are also raised. While Shishiguchi’s “A” signifies the maximum external power directed outward, Chorei-beshimi’s “N” implies the maximum internal power contained within.


After explaining the masks, Mr. Umewaka puts one on his face to show how the mask is smaller than actual human face so that the tip of the chin is visible. “Audience members often tell me that after watching and listening to the actor speaking behind the mask for a while, the mask starts to come alive and look as though it was speaking on its own,” he says.

There are several steps to properly wear a mask in Noh. First, you must not touch the front surface of the mask because the paint is not water-proof or coated to protect itself from grease. If it gets dirty, the whole paint will have to be redone. You need to grab it by the side holes where strings are attached. Once you take the mask with your hands, you need to bow to it once before putting it on. It is a gesture of respect. Then to adjust the angle of the mask against the actor’s face, cotton pads are placed on the forehead and/or on the cheeks.

(Photo: Courtesy of Nishinomiya Noh Theatre) 

Mr. Umewaka even lets me put a mask on my face and walk on the stage with it. My field of sight gets considerably smaller with the mask on, and my sense of distance needs adjusting to know where exactly I am. “See how different it feels?” Mr. Umewaka asks me as my body takes in a whole new sensation of standing on the stage. And how difficult it is to walk without changing the angle of the mask! No wonder the actor needs to master Suri-ashi. Suri-ashi stabilizes the upper part of the body, including the face with a mask. Without the ability to maintain the mask at a certain angle, the Noh actor would not be able to express various subtle emotions by changing the angle ever so slightly.


(4) Q&A

By the time Mr. Umewaka opens up for questions at the end of the workshop, I have many. The following is the summary of Mr. Umewaka’s answers to my questions.

Q. What does a Noh actor’s practice consist of?

A. There are two things: Utai 謡(chanting text) and Shimai仕舞 (movement forms). There are about 200 songs for Utai in the Noh drama repertoire. We practice the text of a song by reading it at loud, working on intonation and phrasing. Shimai is a movement sequence for a chanted text or a musical piece. We master one sequence at a time.

Shimai is not the same thing as “dance.” The word “dance” in Japanese is odori 踊り, which includes some vertical movement of the feet such as jumping and hopping. And it often implies a group of people executing choreography together to music. The “mai 舞” part of Shimai, on the other hand, has the verb form “mau,” which derives from the word “mawaru,” to circulate. The movement of Shimai is circular, and the feet hardly leave the ground as shown in suriashi. Shimai is a solo movement, and the mover initiates music, not the other way around.


Q. How do you rehearse with others (musicians and a chorus) for a performance?

A. Noh actors do not “rehearse” the way many Western actors do. Noh actors are expected to be at a certain skill level when they meet the musicians and other chanters. So, they do not “create” the show together. We usually have only one general rehearsal with others. Two at the most. Sometimes we don’t even have a rehearsal before the performance if it’s a well-known piece. “Awaseru” (go or match with others) is all we do in rehearsal to make sure that we are all on the same page in terms of timing and tempo. There’s no improvisation in the performance. Everything has been carefully choreographed, and the forms must not be modified.

However, even though the forms are the same, the performance looks very different from performer to performer because of individual creativity within the forms.


Q. In traditional Japanese performing arts such as Kabuki and Bunraku, many of the performers are born into the families that have been carrying the art forms from generation to generation, or you have to begin learning the art form from a very early age with a master. Is it the same in Noh?

A. Not necessarily. I happened to be born into the family of Noh theatre, so I started learning at the age of three. But I know quite a few people who started later, some of them even started after they’d turned sixty. In Noh, you can begin learning at any age and can establish yourself as a professional without being born into the family of Noh. There are programs at arts universities where you can learn Noh as well. From the 1970s on, women also have been allowed to learn Noh to become a professional. So, compared to Kabuki and Bunraku, Noh is more open to outsiders.


Q. Many Western artists are fascinated by Noh theatre. How do you see their interest in Noh?

A. Yes, I’ve had so many performance requests from abroad. I’ve been to France, USA, Romania, Italy, Bulgaria, Greece to name a few. One time, in Croatia, a theatre festival producer asked us to do Izutsu, a famous Noh play. In Izutsu, there is a part where I sit still for almost 15 minutes, doing and saying nothing. I didn’t think that the Croatian audience would find that part interesting, so I cut it out from the script and sent it to the producer. But the producer asked me to do the whole thing, including the stillness part. So, the foreigners found it fascinating and new about Noh. They also have interesting questions about the dramaturgy of the play, which I’d never thought of asking myself. I guess that they understand and interpret the story differently.

Speaking of interpretation, I always have difficulty answering one question non-Japanese people ask me. It’s the question about the concept of “god” in Noh theatre. In most of the Western world, or in monotheistic culture, there is only one God. But in Japan there are many gods. We regard the differences between gods as the same kind of difference between waves and water. They are ultimately of the same element. It’s pointless for us to discuss which god is better than the other.

Noh theatre revolves around many sacred entities, from spirit animals to gods. Noh actors perform on the stage as if they were in the corner, as invisible gods, whether the audience understands it or not.


Q. The greatest theorist and playwright of Noh theatre Zeami (c. 1363 – c. 1443) left a famous treatise of Noh titled Fūshikaden. I especially like this one verse Zeami wrote about Noh acting technique, “Hisureba hana 秘すれば花 (If it is hidden, it is the Flower).” The metaphor of the flower is very beautiful to me. Could you elaborate on that?

A. To put it simply, a performance would lose its charm if there is not anything “invisible” in it. Hana 花 (Flower) is the invisible that draws in the audience. Without the invisible, there’s no attraction. This is not just in Noh theatre, but in all human relationships, too, I think. No matter how well you know a friend, there is always something you don’t know or see in him or her. That’s what keeps the relationship fun.

In order to have Hana in your performance, you need to plant seeds, which are technique and knowledge. Only after planting the seeds, you can “flower” on the stage. To flower during performance is the ultimate purpose of the actor, and to let the flower inside the audience bloom is the result of great acting technique.

Hana is always temporary. It happens only in the “now.” It’s ephemeral, one-time only. It blooms and withers. Every performance must be different in Noh because not one flower blooms and withers the same way. Otherwise it would be fake. That’s why there’s usually only one showing of one play at a time in Noh theatre. We never do a prolonged run of weeks and months like hit shows on Broadway. Even when we go abroad and are asked to do, say, the same play for three days in a row, we deal with that by changing the cast each day. Using the same cast day after day leads to accidents on the stage. Commitment to one role for a one-time only show requires full attention.

One more thing about Zeami’s treatise, there is another verse: “Shoshin wasureru bekarazu 初心忘るべからず(Never forget the beginner’s mind).” It’s an often-misunderstood saying. It’s not about having a strong goal to achieve a certain skill level in training. It’s about accumulating the experience of new discoveries. Just like you have worn the masks and practiced Suri-ashi for the first time today at the workshop, you have discovered something new, right? You’ve felt something new. That is “the beginner’s mind.” You need to update your sense of wonder for new experience endlessly as long as you learn Noh.


Q. Do you collaborate with artists from different genres?

Yes, I do it frequently. I have worked with classical pianists, jazz musicians, Takarazuka actors (all-female musical theatre company in Japan), modern theatre actors, and traditional Japanese dancers. It’s stimulating and inspiring to work with different artists. I do what I do best, which is Noh. I don’t change my movement or forms of Noh to collaborate with them. By committing to my art form in collaboration, I often rediscover both the fragility and the flexibility of Noh. All in all, I feel its great potential. All it needs is a flat stage for suriashi. Many art forms can co-exist on the stage with Noh.


Q. What is your vision for the future of Noh theatre?

A. I would like to spread Noh to as many people as possible by giving workshops like this. I want people to see the real Noh, which is vibrant and exciting. I’ve opened this venue Nishinomiya Noh Theatre for various traditional arts in Japan so that they can flourish as well. The theatre is an intimate space of one hundred seats with natural light. In this space, Noh becomes something you can “touch.” People are welcome here to access Noh in a personal, intimate way. I’m certain that by opening the space to more people, Noh will be passed on to the next generation. We give performances with educational opportunities, such as a lecture or seminar about the play or Noh theatre before the show.

Ultimately, I would like to create Noh theatre with the audience.



It’s been several months since I participated in the workshop. What an intense, fascinating experience it was. I am very glad that I finally got to rediscover Noh theatre. I feel it very much alive in present time, and its technique could fundamentally enrich the actor’s expressivity in any genre. I am inspired especially by its philosophy of acting. The actor must have the Flower, the invisible in his or her performance and let it bloom in the heart of the audience as well. I don’t think I fully understand the concept of the Flower yet. However, I believe that it is the thing that has kept Noh theatre alive and ever so fresh through all these years. Just like a blooming flower delights the beholder season after season, Noh theatre will keep evolving, and its life force will never go away.

I would like to thank Motonori Umewaka for his generosity and Nishinomiya Noh Theatre staff for letting me use their press material for this blog.


(Photo: Courtesy of Nishinomiya Noh Theatre)

For more photographs of Noh performances by Motonori Umewaka, go to:

Japanese Traditional Art Culture Website (Japanese):