Antiquity through the Eighteenth Century: Classical Japanese Theater


Origins of Japanese Theater

  • Early theater was based on Shinto ritual celebrations known as kagura dating as far back as 3 b.c.e.
  • Two forms of theater evolved after Buddhism was introduced to Japan in 538 c.e.: gigaku, a Buddhist dance play with masked figures in procession, and bugaku, based on courtly dances from various Asian cultures.
  • Sarugaku or “monkey entertainment” is a variety of theater consisting of comic dialogue and short skits performed at Buddhist temples.
  • During the thirteenth century drama evolved into an elevated form called sarugaku Noh, or “skilled monkey entertainment.”

The Emergence of Noh Theater: Kannami and Zeami

  • Shoguns took over Japan in 1192 when the emperor was deposed from power. With the shoguns sarugaku Noh theater received many patrons.
  • Kannami Kiyotsugu (1333–1384), a sarugaku Noh troupe member performed before the shogun Ashikaga in 1374; as a result, his son—actor Zeami Motokyo—became the shogun’s companion and lover.
  • Kannami created a dramatic form adapted to the tastes of the shogunate and lower warrior tastes by combining popular songs, dance, and music with Zen Buddhist meditative ideals.
  • Kannami’s works use a single protagonist.
  • Zeami wrote a seven-volume text titled Kadensho (1400–02) in which he discusses Noh acting and theater including yugen—a theory of beauty, grace, and life’s impermanence.

Noh Drama

  • Noh plays are based on mythology, legend, and the twelfth–century civil war among samurais.
  • Noh are divided into five categories: plays about gods; warrior plays; plays about women (called “wig plays”); miscellanies including contemporary issues; and demon plays.
  • Protagonists (shite) are ghosts, demons, or haunted persons.
  • Noh dramas are divided into two acts with the protagonist disguised in the first and revealed in the second. The protagonist speaks in literary verse and quotes Chinese and Japanese poetry.
  • The climax in a Noh drama takes the form of ritualized dance.
  • Other Noh drama characters include the protagonist’s companion (tsure), a third party (waki), a priest, and a servant (kyogen) who provides the narrative summary.
  • Kyogen (“wild words”) can also refer to farcical sketches performed between plays.
  • Nohgaku is a dramatic program including various dramas in a seven- eight-hour performance.


  • Costumes in Noh drama are very elaborate silk outfits including kimonos, wigs, and stylized masks that represent character types (male and female, old and young, human and supernatural).
  • Physical settings are minimal and temporary structures are used, as well as hand-held props that represent emotional states and other objects (e.g., a folding fan could represent  a sword, flute, or other object).

The Noh Stage

  • Noh stages were standardized during the seventeenth century and remain unchanged today.
  • Main stages are 18 feet square, raised 2.5 feet above ground, made of polished cypress with four 15-foot pillars that support a temple-like roof.
  • Musicians sit in front of a visible backstage that features a wooden wall with a painted pine tree, the audience sits front left of the main stage, and the chorus occupies an area to the audience’s right.
  • Hashigakiri are railed passageways or bridges through which actors enter and exit the stage.
  • Reverberating jars are placed under the main stage, backstage, and bridge to amplify characters’ walking movements.
  • Characters are assigned standard places (e.g., the protagonist stands before the bridge-stage known as the shite-pillar to announce his name upon entering).

Later Noh Theater

  • Noh theater was standardized during the Tokugawa shogunate (1603–1868) when the government moved to Edo (Tokyo).
  • Noh troupes had hereditary leaders (iemoto) who were responsible for upholding Noh traditions.
  • Noh’s principal audience was courtly and upper class, though amateur companies entertained the public.


  • Kabuki evolved during the seventeenth century for the urban middle classes, particularly focusing on stage technology, elaborate scenes, and costumes, and were influenced by the erotic dances of temple maidens.
  • Kabuki was restricted to adult males in 1653.
  • Kabuki practitioners are called onnagata—actors of female roles.
  • Bunraku were elaborate dramas developed from an earlier form of theater that used puppets and dolls.