What is Noh?

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As the world’s oldest traditional classic stage art in existence, Noh has more than 600 years of history and it is designated by UNESCO as the world heritage asset in 2008. It is a play but also a musical play with the element of dancing and singing, so it comparable to opera in the west but the difference between those two is spectacular.

It can be said to be a masked play since they put on the mask when performing.

ZEAMI who perfected the Noh Play is one of the most important figures in Japanese theater history. It was more than 200 years before Shakespeare appeared when he wrote his concept of art theory FUSHIKADEN.

Noh is the play involving a perfect division of labor, those who are reciting and those who are performing TAHIKATA. The latter are divided into SHITEKATA a main actor and WAKIKATA supporting actors and KYOGENKATA comical actors and HAYASHIKATA musicians.

The main actor is called SHITE and sometime he plays a role of transcendental figure such as dragon god or a demon. Noh focuses on the main actor. The SHITE is not only a main actor but he also performs the functions of producer and director. Thus ZEAMI, as a leading SHITE, exerted his genius over the entire production.

Today’s guest speaker, Mr Katsumi Noboru is SHITEKATA in KANZE school and produces his own Noh plays.

Hello, everyone.

Today’s special guest is Mr Katsumi Noboru. He is a Noh player of Kanze School and he is a holder of important intangible cultural heritage.

Noh as a stage art often compared with the Opera in the west.

Today we would like to ask Mr Katsumi about Noh and study the difference between the west and east way of thinking and to introduce the most simple but deep performing art of Noh.

“You brought us beautiful costumes, how old are they?”

“This costume does not happen to be old. There are many different kinds of costume for Noh art. KARAORI is famous type of Noh Costume. It includes representations of traditional patterns such as flowers and grass of four seasons, and birds, wind, and the moon and patterns from Chrysanthemum. Patterns and costumes change in accordance with the music.”


“How many costumes do you have as your own?”

“Since I have conducted my own UNI NO KAI school for 30years, I have many costumes. I did not inherit any of them. They are all from my own time. But when it comes to Noh masks, I have some very old masks. Today I have brought three kinds of Noh masks from the Edo era who are about 300 years old. First I will show you a woman’s mask and as for the woman masks there are about 20 kinds of woman masks ranging from teenager to 90 years old lady. All are different. They change masks and costumes along with the music. Noh masks, Noh costumes, colors, patterns, they change everything. So it is very luxury world. This is mask bag made from small pieces of KARAORI. Some are mended and worn out now.”

“Noh masks are an art form; but the sweat of previous Noh player stays on the inside of the masks throughout each era. Noh masks are art; but for we Noh players they are also tools. When used on the stage by Noh players they come alive; but otherwise they remain dry and dead. They are grasped using the holes in the ears. We do not hold them in any other way. We feel it very important to keep them clean, so when storing them we try to avoid soiling with oil from our hands. We never touch them with our hands. The sweat of players from bygone days adds a certain flavor or value to the old masks. This one is a mask of a woman.”



“This is old one, too. It is backed with cloth. If that were not so, you could see through to the other side of the eyes. Then there would be no expression on the face.”

“This one is 315 years old from the Edo era. Its Surface is peeling. I have used it many times: and every time I put it on, a little bit peels off.”

“To me, Noh masks are tools for use by players on a stage so when displayed in a museum they are not alive, however great a masterpiece they may be. When in use, it even appears that blood flows. On a shadowy stage they provide a tremendous effect. My belief is that Noh masks are alive.”

“I have more than one hundred Noh masks. I feel that they seem to be chatting with each other at night. This is another old one. This is a mask portraying a ghost. It is used when we play such a role.Observe the frightful look of the face. It is dreadful just to look at. This is a mask and this a wig. When we insert the black wig on top of the mask and put on the costume they all become alive and present a dreadful appearance. It is not only the Noh mask: but adding the black wig the expression changes, does it not?”

Noboru KATSUMI ーProfileー

Intangible World Heritage Artist UNESCO, Japanese Noh Performer

1950 Born in Taito-ku, Negishi, Tokyo.
1963 Took up the practice of Noh.
1973 Graduated from Kokugakuin University, majoring in Japanese Literature.
1975 Studied musical accompaniment in Noh under following Living National Treasures: master FujitaDaigoro, master Uzawa Hisashi and master KAMEI Tadao and completed the fifth Noh Training Workshop.
1980 Graduated from Tokyo University of the Arts, majoring in traditional Japanese music, section of Noh. Studied under master FUJINAMI − Shigemitsu of the Kanze School family named KANZE Sakon while studying at Tokyo University of the Arts.
1983 Performed in France (Paris, Lyon, Lille, Belfort, Grenoble) in a special performance tour.
1984 Recognized to become independent from theKanze family foundation and certified to start his career (Junshokubun).
1987 Participated in the school of Kanzeperformance visit to New Delhi, India.
1988 Performed in Australia (Perth, Melbourne,Adelaide, Sydney) in a special performance tour.
2001 Awarded as “Important Intangible Cultural Property Person” (Juuyou Mukei Bunkazai SougoShitei Hojishia) by Japanese Government in the area of Performing Art.
2007 Published a book, “Men no butai to katagami(Stage and paper of Noh mask)” , Tokyo: TamagaUniversity Press, 2007 in collaboration with the Noh omote specialist TAKATSU Koichi. The book features many noh masks made by master TAKTATU and worn for performances.
2010 Performed scenes from the plays of“Adachigahara” and “Tsuchigumo” at the TheatroPolicalente in the town of Abano Terme, Northern Italy which is the birthplace of the Commedia dell’ Arte. Deepened the professional ties with Mr.FabioMangolini, renown actor and Mr. Donato Sartori, mask–maker at the performance tour.
2012 Published “Ichigei No Hana”, a commemorative book dedicated to the late Mr. Koichi Takatsu, Noh mask Master.
2013 Appointed as advisor to Japan Promotion Association.
2014 Organized and directed “Shikari” in “ Wa noSaiten”.
Performed the Noh play “Hagoromo” at the embassy of Japan in Moscow.
Performed the Noh play “Matsukaze” and “Makiginu” at The Kazakh National University of Arts in Astana and Almaty in Kazakhstan.
Guest professor to The Kazakh National University of Arts.
2015 Dedicated Noh “Makikinu” during the “Shikinen Festival” to the Nagano Prefecture Togakushi shrine
Performed Noh “Hagoromo”, “Chu Dance” and the “Funa Benkei” in Astana of Kirghizia and Almaty of Kazakhstan
In 2015 a member of the current Noh Association of Japan, Noh Association member, and a member of the Kanze Association to host the [Katsumi Mikachi-kai] (meeting of the sea)
Member of the Nohgaku performers’Association(Nohgaku Kyokai) and Japan Nohgaku performers’ Association (NihonNohgaku Kai).
Presiding “Uminokai” and “Katsumikanshokai”which are affiliated with the Kanzekai.
Selections of the best and most important performances: “Okina (Senzai)” (1985), “Shakkyo”(1990), “Shojo Midare” (1993), “Dojoji”(1996), “Shakkyo” (1995, 1999, 2000), “Mochizuki “(2004), “Kinuta” (2014) among others.

This is also available in: Japanese