15 Asian Drama Forms: Japan – Noh, Kabuki

Mr. Surajit Maity

epgp books




Almost every Oriental country has its own theatrical performances, rituals and traditions. Many of them are found quite divers and highly developed in their forms. Undoubtedly, rituals and religious activity gave birth too many distinctive forms and patterns of performances which again developed into many separate theatrical forms and continued to be performed independently. Similarly Japan had numerous ritualistic and theatrical performances in the ancient period orally transmitted from generation to generations. But very few survived since there had been no system of writing till 4th century. Thus the early history of Japanese theatre has always in mist. But with the advancement of time, the mediaeval period witnessed a profound change in writing and music, dance. And soon they became the regular features of Japanese festivals. In a period of 200 years after Prince Shotoku (573-621) imported Buddhism, Japan embraced continental cultures, especially from China, Korea and India. By the eighth century three forms evolved in Japan: Gigaku, Bugaku and Sarugaku. Bugaku and Sarugaku exerted considerable influence on the early development of Noh Theatre (14th Century). While Noh Theatre stared gaining its popularity after being patronized by royal courts and being performed widely, one more oppressed from of theater, Kabuki evolved around 1603 and gradually became one of the most famous theatre forms in Japan. Noh and Kabuki are the most popular and widely performed Japanese forms even today.

Origin and Development of Noh Theatre:


It is believed that Noh has derived mostly from an old Japanese dance from Sarugaku-no, a ritualistic dance form mixed with music, dance, mimicry etc. Sarugaku means “monkey music”. An early treaties, New Notes on Sarugaku (c. 1060), states that’s Sarugaku was an inclusive term for all kind of comic entertainment. Thus, it basically was a form of noisy merrymaking. The Buddhists adopted Sarugaku-no as a form of demonstration of their practice and teaching at the beginning of twelfth century. Initially it was performed by the priests. But as time progressed the form got the attraction of the mass and a many a performance were being organized in many occasions other than temple festivals. And so it created the need for skilled performers and slowly professionals grew and replace the priests.


It was under the leadership of Kannami Kiyotsugu (1333-1384) and his son Zeami Motokiyo (1363-1444) that Noh evolved into a unique form of Japanese theatre. In 1374 Kannami Kiyotsugu came to perform at the court of the Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358-1408). At that time Kannami was a major performer of Sarugaku-no and was the head of his troupe. Ashikaga Yoshimitsu was highly impressed by his performance and he offered Kannami and his troupe royal patronage and allowed them to live in his court. Sarugaku became more refined as it transformed into a courtly performance. Kannami’s greatest innovation or the contribution was the combination of popular mimetic drama with an elegant aristocratic style. After the death of Kannami, his son Zeami continued refining the practice and transformed the social perception of formerly out cast actors. Today Zeami is considered as one of the greatest Noh dramatist and theorists of all time. He wrote more than 100 plays and a series of highly sophisticated treaties on the art of acting and playwriting. Over the time Sarugaku-no came to be called merely No/Noh. As a result of it, Noh can be called as a form of performance of fourteenth of fifteenth century with a proper structural shape of its own.


As the early Noh (Sarugaku-no) was adopted by the Buddhists, they had a major influence on it. Today, Noh appears to be as a distinctive theatrical art form drawing many sources including Zen Buddhism and its spirituality and philosophy, indigenous shamanic and Shinto ritual practices.

“From these spiritual sources Zeami adopted the conviction that beauty lies in suggestion, simplicity, subtlety, and restraint. Virtually all of his premises are summed up in the complex term ‘yugen’, which, essentially, gentle gracefulness, the mysterious beauty of impermanence in which elegance is always accompanied with awareness of its fragility. In later years, Zeami extended his conception of ‘yugen’ to include the feeling of tranquil, loneliness and the peaceful acceptances of old age.”

(History of the Theatre, Oscar G. Brockett)

During the period of Ashikaga (1336-1573 also known as Muromachi period) Noh plays were hardly about samurai warriors and their victory and achievements. But, more often the plays were about tragic love affairs, passion, pain and agony of the soldier, old age stories and supernatural incidents. An approximation of 240 major Noh plays of that period are still performed today.


Form and Structure of Noh Theatre:


Theme, Text, Subjects and Types of Performance:


Noh dramas are now classified by their themes into the five different categories. Those are:

  1. Kamimono: These types of plays are about praising and worshiping God. A character comes in the role of a deity to tell the mythic story of a shrine or praise a particular god. (e.g. Takasago, Chikubushima)
  2. Shuramono: Shuramono are about warriors. A spirit or ghost of a famous worrior appears and acts as the protagonist and pleads to a monk for salvation and the drama culminates in a glorious re-enactment of the scene of his death. (e.g. Tamura, Atsumori)
  3. Kazuramono: Kazuramonos are about women. Mainly fill with refined songs and dances Kazuramono reflects the smooth and flowing movements representing female characters. (e.g. Basho, Matsukaze)
  4. Kuruimono: Apart from above four types there are some miscellaneous play which comes under the term Kuruimono. They are often about mad persons or spirits but also about some living persons. There are about 94 “miscellaneous” plays traditionally performed in the fourth place in a five-play program. (e.g. Aya no tsuzumi, Kinuta)
  5. Kirinamonos: This type of play demonstrates the stories of monsters, goblins, or demons, and other supernatural beings. There are almost 30 plays in this category, most of which are shorter than the plays in the other categories. (e.g. Shojo)


A traditional Noh performance includes one of each type in above shown ordered. But over the due course of time the number of plays is reduced to 2 or 3 in a Noh program. Every episode is drawn out to great length to extract the full flavor of the ritualistic. Another distinctive form of performance which came in between two Noh plays in a performance is Kyogen. It basically, is asmall farce performed as an interlude between the acts of Noh plays. None of the Kyogen plays were written until 1638-1642. But there are nearly 203 Kyogen plays remaining with us today.


The Stage:


The early Noh stage was more like an open air arena theatre. A stage was built at one side of a closed circular courtyard to prevent the view of common people. The staged faced to the view of the royal family. A single roof top was created on the main performance area. But, as the Noh stage evolved, it began to be modeled on the architecture of Shinto shrines. The standardization of Noh stage started around 1615 and since then Noh stage underwent through its drastic changes and we see a fixed structure of modern Noh stage today. Noh stage was no more a part of royal court. Instead, separate stages were being created only for the performances. Gradually it took the shape of an auditorium and an entire roof top was created over the performance area and the audience area. The Noh stage we see today has two major areas, the main stage (butai), and the bridge (hashigakari) which leads to the dressing room. And both the roofs of the stage and the bridge were like the shrines. Another structural significance of the stage is its pillars. The four different pillars which supported the roof were the upstage right pillar, called shite-bashira (principal character’s pillar), the upstage left pillar called fuebashira (the flute pillar), the downstage right pillar, called metsukebashira (the pillar for saying the speech) and the pillar at the downstage left corner is called wakibashira. This last pillar is used mostly for secondary character. The audience sits in front of the stage and also on the right side of the stage, just beside the bridge.

Now the main stage is again divided into three main sections. The main stage within the four pillars is made of burnished wood to give a shining effect and beneath it some sounding pots are kept to enhance the acoustic. The upstage area behind the pillar (atoza) is used for the orchestra consisted of two or three drummers and a flute players. The extension at the left side of the stage is called waki-za. This place is used for the chorus including 6 to 10 members in it. A traditional Noh theatre stage has two main entrances to the stage. The main entrance is the bridge (hashigakari) from the dressing room to the stage. It is very significant in its various usages. The bridge is used mainly for the entry of the principal characters. In front of the bridge there are three small pine trees; san no matsu, ni no matsu, ichi no matsu symbolizing heaven, earth and man. The other entrance is at the left side of the upstage called Kirido of sliding door (only about 3 feet high). This one is used for all the subordinate characters, chorus, musicians, and stage assistance. This door is also used to show the magical entry of supernatural characters, fleeing, exit of dead characters etc. Like those of Shinto Shrines Noh stage is completely made of wood and highly polished all around. On the rear wall of the stage right behind the orchestra there is a huge painted pine tree and the wall on the left of the stage is painted with the picture of bamboo. These are perhaps there to create the natural scenery.


Costume, Mask and Properties:


All Noh costumes are highly bright and rich in colour and design. The costumes of Noh were mainly based on the official Japanese dress. They were mostly made of silk with grandeur design embroidery. The costume can separately be observed in different parts: the outer part, the garments worn without and overdress, lower dress and the headgears. With this basic combination Noh theatre bring variation of the costumes of different characters. Costumes are often changed on stage.


Masked played a very prominent role in Noh theatre like ancient Greek or Roman theatre or some folk theatres of other continents (Chaaau Dance of Purulia, Sheraikella,Maurbhanj in India). Just like Chaau dance, mask making has been transmitted from generation to generation by particular community or family. Noh mask are usually made of wood. There are five different types of Noh Mask: aged, male, female, deities and monster. Moreover, many other mask are also there for any further special or subordinate characters.


Since Noh is basically a dance and songs based performance it has very minimal use of properties. Be it hand properties or stage properties. But the most important properties are the traditional Japanese hand fan. It is suggestively for many a situation like rolling and flowing of water, blowing of the wind or storm, thunder, lightning or rain. The actors can also sometimes have a sword. In Noh theatre there is no possibility of changing scenery or having a backdrop. Thus a very few small and simple stage properties are used to suggest any scene or place such as mountain, palace, bedroom, jungle etc. Usually a wooden or bamboo frame suggests a boat.


Origin and Development of Kabuki Theatre:


“While Noh was assuming its role as a major aristocratic art form, other entertainments were being addressed to more plebian audiences. But major popular forms did not emerge until the era of the Tokugawa family Shogunate 1603-1867). As with Noh, the new forms can best be understood within the sociopolitical context of the time. Through most of the Tokugawa era, Japan was at peace. As a result, the samurai declined in importance while the lesser ranks improved their economic position. Beginning in the early seventeenth century, the shoguns also expelled all foreigners and deliberately isolated Japan from outside influences. The resulting emphasis on native social and artistic forms encouraged the elaboration of ceremonials and entertainments of all kinds just when the lesser classes permitted them to patronize the arts. This conjunction of vents helps to explain why during the course of the seventeenth century there evolved two of Japan’s most distinctive theatrical types-the Doll Theater and Kabuki”.

(History of the Theatre, Oscar G. Brockett)


With the return of peace, the towns prospered and a vigorous new culture arose- nearly the opposite of Samurai elegance and control. Vulgar, irreverent, and lewd, culture of the merchants burst forth around 1600 in poetry, music and dance. At the center of their new entertainments were the first kabuki performers. Thus Kabuki is traced back to 1603 when Okuni, a female dancer began to perform on an improvised stage on the riverbed at Kyoto. She danced and enacted satirical playlets and bawdy sideshow. Most of the performers were women and they seemed to be associated with prostitution. They sometimes dressed like men and acted erotic. Around 1629 when Kabuki started spreading rapidly in major cities in Japan, the shogun forbade the women to perform since their sensuous dances and skits often reversed gender roles and mocked samurai culture. The performance was subsequently pick up by young male prostitutes and started performing with the same pace and probably with more popularity. But around 1652 the young male prostitutes were also prohibited to perform Kabuki, for boys seemed to be as seductive as the woman. Henceforth only the older males who shaved their foreheads were allowed to perform Kabuki. And gradually Men’s Kabuki became and remained the permanent form. This rule imposed on the performers resulted providing male actors less sexually appealing to the audience. In addition to these impositions of the state kabuki had to go through many rules like limiting the number of Kabuki troupes allowed to perform, minimizing Kabuki’s contamination of their culture, separating normal theatre people from normal urban life, prohibiting the performances that appeared to undermine the social and political hegemony of the samurai and many other. But even after all the oppression Kabuki theatre developed rapidly between 1675 and 1750 and also evolved many of its characteristics and remains the most popular theatrical form of Japan till today.

Text, Theme, Style and Type of Performance:


Kabuki is actually a combination of singing, dancing and speech. Since no script of Kabuki plays were written in that period, the form largely dealt with improvised dance and speeches. It was around 1664 when Kabuki came up with its first two-act. During 1670s a writer named Chikamatsu Monzaemon began to write for the Kabuki groups. He wrote nearly 25 plays. But most of his plays are now changed from its original form. After Chikamatsu came Takedo Izumo (1691-1756) who worked with Chikamatsu and became a successful independent writer later. Chusingura, originally a Doll Play is now considered to be his best Kabuki play. After Izumo, Kawatake Mokumi (1816-1893) became the most prominent play wright. Some of his best plays are Gorozo the Dandy (1864), Beten Kozo and His Gang of Thieves (1862). Kawatake wrote approximately 50 plays.


Unlike Noh, Kabuki plays are often comic in theme in the form of melodrama. The episodes are not always linier and not well connected to each other. Initially a Kabuki program used to be lengthy, nearly 12 hours. It was mandatory to have four different kinds of plays in a row. Jidaimono, a historical play used to come at the very beginning of a program. Jidaimono often glorifies the tradition and values of the samurai. Then comes a dance with strong emotional flavour. After that a one-act domestic play termed as Sewmono used to be performed. It was mainly about the traders, merchants, artists or ordinary people. And finally comes a one-act play as a conclusion to the program. Slowly the time of the performance was reduced to 8 hours.


Dance has always been an integral part of Kabuki Performance. One has to understand the stylized movement, gesture and posture in order to understand the entire program. Dance sometimes reflects the verbal text and is accompanied by narrative and descriptive music. The Actor or the dancer does not sing. Instead, the orchestra sings along with a number of instruments like flutes, drums, bells, gongs, cymbals. But the most important instrument of all is the Samisen, a string instrument. There was a time when the dance became so important a part to Kabuki that the company started recruiting professional dance choreographers. In Kabuki the chorus does not stay in a single place throughout the performance. They change their position according to the scene and thus go beyond just becoming a chorus. Since the time women were banned to performed, men stared to perform all the character of kabuki. According to Oscar G. Brocket, “The roles in Kabuki are divided into a few basic types: tachiyako, loyal, good and courageous men; katakiyaku, villainous men; wakasukata, young men, who if mild in disposition are called nimaime; dokekata, comic role, including comic villains; koyaku,children’s roles; and onnagata, women’s roles of various kinds.”

The Stage:


Unlike Noh, the Kabuki stage is more grandeur in its scenic beauty and stage dimension. It offered some kind of setting which resembles to the European proscenium stage. It uses all the modern technique including revolving stage, changing of backdrops, curtains to conceal the stage, elevator trap door and many more. The area of Kabuki stage is wider than any other stage in Japan at that time. Sometime around 1730s Hanamichi, one of the most distinctive features was introduced to Kabuki stage. It is a walkway which extends into the audience and via which dramatic entrances and exits are made. Sooner around 1770 a second Hanamichi was added for its popularity in providing special entrance. Initially the audience used to sit in between two Hanamichi. But later on large balconies were made on both front sides of the stage. Kabuki stages and theaters have steadily become more technologically sophisticated, and innovations including revolving stages and trap doors were introduced during the 18th century. The revolving stage called as Mawari-butai was introduced in between 1716–1735. Seri refers to the stage “traps” that have been commonly employed in kabuki since the middle of the 18th century (see pictures below). Today the proscenium arch introduced in 1908 in Kabuki theatre, is 90 feet wide and 20 feet high. A typical Kabuki stages uses a lot of scenery (no three dimensional paintings were used).The kabuki stage also provides the realistic setting of Japan. For that realistic sets were erected on the stage. By 1830 Kabuki stage developed most of its technique that we see today.



Costume, Make-up and Properties:


Costumes in Kabuki performance are highly traditional. They often take references from various historical periods. Even though Kabuki hardly cares about history and its authenticity it deals several historical dresses in a single play. The dresses are more grandeur in style and pattern than any other forms. And were usually heavier and needed assistance to keep them in properly on the stage.


Where mask is of high relevance and mandatory for Noh theatre, Kabuki deliberately avoids the tradition. Instead, they paint on their face and. Exaggerated patterns are used to suggest different characters. In most of cases the bright colours are used symbolically to give conventional pattern to each character. Generally red and black colours are used in facial painting in conventional Kabuki theatre. But the characters in villainous roles generally come in blue or brown paint.


Any Kabuki performance deals with great many properties and creates illusion and effect relatively in more realistic way. A hand fan is used in the same way as used in Noh. A Kabuki play uses properties like puppets (tiger, elephant, monkey etc.), sword, armor, a scarf (used in various purposes), gods and goddess etc. But the most important property that Kabuki introduced is the wooden horse, covered with velvet. It is handled by multiple actors.




Beginning from the mediaeval period to the end of Samurai age Japan underwent drastic change in the field of performance and art form. But few of them got recognition by being patronized by the court. Other subaltern forms fought and turns to be popular enough and continued to be performed till today. Noh and Kabuki are among those two contrasting forms of theatre. Noh theatre started as a temple performance and then was patronized by the court. Hence, it got all the royal support and funding it needed. Whereas Kabuki was to go through struggle and oppression of the same royal court since it was supposed to be vulgar and it often criticizes the Samurai tradition. But with the advancement of time and people acceptance Noh and Kabuki remain to be the most two famous and largely performed Japanese theatre forms in Japan. Kabuki stared as the lower class art formed performed by the prostitute. But as it started spreading all over the country it was slowly being acknowledged by the court. There was even a time when kabuki started using the Noh Stage. But then Kabuki involved its own technique and machinery and developed its own stage. But Noh remained to be a sophisticated form of art form its subtle athletics, precision, its religious sources and references.

you can view video on Asian Drama Forms: Japan – Noh, Kabuki



  • McConachie, Bruce, et al. Theatre histories: an introduction. Routledge, 2016.
  • Brockett, Oscar Gross, and Franklin Joseph Hildy. History of the Theatre. Allyn and Bacon, 1991.
  • Southern, Richard. The seven ages of the theatre. Hill and Wang, 1961.
  • Samuel L. Leiter. The Kanamaru-za: Japan’s Oldest Kabuki Theatre. Asian Theatre Journal, Vol. 14, No. 1 (Spring, 1997), pp. 56-92 University of Hawai’i Press.