Answered By: Doug Bolden
Last Updated: Oct 07, 2015     Views: 272

Noh is a very old theatrical tradition from Japan known for its striking masks and stylized performance. 

From the Encyclopedia Britannica, 

Noh—its name derived from , meaning “talent” or “skill”—is unlike Western narrative drama. Rather than being actors or “representers” in the Western sense, Noh performers are simply storytellers who use their visual appearances and their movements to suggest the essence of their tale rather than to enact it. Little “happens” in a Noh drama, and the total effect is less that of a present action than of a simile or metaphor made visual. The educated spectators know the story’s plot very well, so that what they appreciate are the symbols and subtle allusions to Japanese cultural history contained in the words and movements...

There are five types of Noh plays. The first type, the kami (“god”) play, involves a sacred story of a Shintō shrine; the second, shura mono (“fighting play”), centres on warriors; the third, katsura mono (“wig play”), has a female protagonist; the fourth type, varied in content, includes the gendai mono (“present-day play”), in which the story is contemporary and “realistic” rather than legendary and supernatural, and the kyōjo mono (“madwoman play”), in which the protagonist becomes insane through the loss of a lover or child; and the fifth type, the kiri or kichiku (“final” or “demon”) play, features devils, strange beasts, and supernatural beings. A typical Noh play is relatively short. Its dialogue is sparse, serving as a mere frame for the movement and music. A standard Noh program consists of three plays selected from the five types so as to achieve both an artistic unity and the desired mood; invariably, a play of the fifth type is the concluding work.[2014. "Noh theatre." Encyclopædia Britannica.]

Noel J. Pinnington's "The Early History of the Noh Play", traces Noh's links to Chinese customs, its religious vs public history, its tie-ins to agricultural songs, and how much it was influenced by scholars over being an actual popular form. [Pinnington, Noel J. 2013. "The Early History of the Noh Play." Monumenta Nipponica 68, no. 2: 163] 

Likewise, Lim Beng Choo's "They came to party: an examination of the social status of the medieval noh theatre," compares the early history of Noh as a "poor man's theater" to its rise among the elite, many who would later go on to perform in it as something of a self-driven artistic movement. [Choo, Lim Beng. 2004. "They came to party: an examination of the social status of the medieval noh theatre." Japan Forum 16, no. 1: 111-133.]

As mentioned, one of the most striking aspects of Noh is its masks. You can see examples of them on websites such as and

Since the masks are static, much of the expression and "acting" with them is given over to using angles and shadows to subtly impact how the audience sees the mask. There have been a number of articles and studies on this aspect, three are listed below:

Kawai, N, H Miyata, R Nishimura, and K Okanoya. 2013. "Shadows Alter Facial Expressions of Noh Masks." Plos One 8, no. 8.

Lyons, Michael J., Ruth Campbell, Andre Plante, Mike Coleman, Miyuki Kamachi, and Shigeru Akamatsu. 2000. "The Noh Mask Effect: Vertical Viewpoint Dependence of Facial Expression Perception." Proceedings: Biological Sciences, 2000. 2239.

Miyata, H, R Nishimura, K Okanoya, and N Kawai. 2012. "The Mysterious Noh Mask: Contribution of Multiple Facial Parts to the Recognition of Emotional Expressions." Plos One 7, no. 11.

If you are interested in seeing the plays themselves, we have The Noh Drama, Ten Plays from the Japanese (translated and selected by Special Noh Committee, Japanese Classics Translation Committee, Nippon Gakujutsu Shinkōkai). The call number for that is PL888 .N5 1960 and its up on the third floor, North side.