Aesthetic Concepts in Japanese Noh Theatre: 能楽の美


While living in Japan at the end of the twentieth century, I had the opportunity to study traditional Noh Theatre, an ancient and medieval mix of dance, drama, and music. Known for its austere beauty, Noh is both a fascinating subject of study and an extremely difficult art form to master – requiring decades of both physical and aesthetic training. So what makes this ancient art so beautiful?

One commonly repeated aphorism by Noh Theater creator Zeami is “what the actor (or musician) does not do is of great interest” – senu tokoro ga omoshioki. This idea is directly related to the use of what is known as ma in Japanese fine arts – a profound usage of space or silence; a moment ‘pregnant’ with possibilities. In the case of Noh Theatre this is an emotional state where nothing is being done, but the “immense presence” of emotion is felt. In my Noh flute (nohkan) studies under Sensei Noguchi at the Otsuki Noh Theatre School in Osaka, Japan, I was constantly reminded to ‘play’ the ura-byoushi (the spaces between the notes) as consistently as the notes themselves. Zeami himself stated that the inner tension of the actor in his prescribed emotional state is the thing that audiences sense in the silence of the actor.

Various terms can be used to distinguish this state from other Zen arts or Zen Buddhism itself. An-i, the state of perfect versatility and ease, is neither inner state nor outer action exclusively. One can grasp the actor’s genuine understanding of the role and the art of Noh (fūga-no-makoto), which may resemble the original purity of (Zen) enlightenment (hongaku), or the essential nature of phenomena (hon’ i). An actor, through mastering or creating hana can create in the audience an awareness of the beauty and sacredness inherent in everything (hosomi, kanjaku, and/or ka) most commonly created in haiku, the ‘spirit resonance’ of an artwork; how alive with chi (ki) it is (not to be confused with the Western notion of chi as a catch-all term referring to ‘energy’). This beauty usually has a relationship with impermanence or aging (kokō), while the profound activity itself is mui-no-i, something being done by nothing being done, containing no trace of deliberation, the sense of ‘no-sense’ (Japan: mukan-no-kan, in Chinese painting hsi-pi: “playing with the brush”; spontaneous painting after mastery of technique).

Best of all is the term mushotoku, “without a fixed salary,” meaning doing without thought of action or end, result, or reward leading to myôfu – mystical experience that which is beyond all understanding and enunciation, usually created by the mature actor with ran-i, the fully matured state of artistic sense that comes from an intense cultivation of skill. This is the what is considered the profound, “unfathomable” Japanese beauty (yuugen), achieved at the “sou” level of performance expressed in the term shin-gyou-sou.


The shin-gyou-sou system of describing levels of visual and musical composition in Noh is similar to the idea of gestalt in visual/aural perception. We see the actor and the background, hear the notes and the rests, and organize them accordingly in our minds. This is the shin level of Noh. The next level, gyou, makes the general organization of the work less clear (in an artistic manner) through the use of narrative, chronological reversal, and sparse instrumentation. The sou level of composition consists of the expressive part serving to support the ‘blank’ part, only existing to give ‘shape’ to this void. This blankness is the core of a sou composition, and the highest attainable level of acting, narrating, or musical performance in Noh. How one deals with the nature of a sou level performance involves a high degree of training, to the point where training is forgotten and the actor or flautist ‘instinctively’ uses the practiced elements to frame the ma. Unlike a boundary, ma can be created with a single note or gesture – like the single post sticking out of a shrine foundation at the Isse Grand Shrine, which is considered to symbolize an area of reverence and quiescence. This idea from Zeami – senu tokoro: the site of undoing, unspeaking – speaks of the ‘silences’ (ura-byoushi) in the nohkan music that are all alluded to by notes.

So what is in the artist? What is the meaning of the silence that one can spontaneously create or express…for the individual musician is not displaying his own unique style like one would in a more solo-oriented form like jazz improvisation. Ma becomes one’s own feeling: feeling, appropriately expressed in light of the mood of that particular performance, is the thus ground of this ma. Zeami discusses this in his aesthetic theories of hana.


The plays of Noh are concerned with the impermanence of life and how various beings, both natural and supernatural, deal with reality and fate. The deep emotional nuances of Noh come from the explanation and personification of various truths and their consequences in a person’s existence. Thus, the art of Noh is an art of expression through aesthetic principles of the mysteries and profundities of life. The expression of the quality of being sad, the inner qualities of sorrow, is sought in the acting and musical art of the Noh theatre as the ground for all gesture and sound. And the concept of hana as a flowering of these qualities at the appropriate time in a play is paramount. The ‘flowering’

is the domain of those that create the piece, and successful performance is a personification in the artistic ritual of the quality of existence. In the void of ma, this emotional awareness is grasped internally by the audience member as the actor and the nohkan player create what they feel is the proper space for this realization. This spontaneous shifting of pitch, tempo, and rhythm within the cells of music is for an emotion, psychological effect and is improvised in the process of finding the suitable gesture for the specific audience, time and location of the piece. This, as a spontaneous shifting of elements, is an improvisation within traditional boundaries, but more specifically, could be considered an emotional improvisation of notes, timing, flute or vocal pitch and shape, and pacing (though my own teacher himself did not have a singular opinion on this matter).


Another excellent description of this kind of Noh theater ma is the i-guse, a seated form of the Noh dance set to a narrative song-poem known as a kuse. When performing an i-guse the actor (known as a shite) sits center stage, completely still, while the chorus chants. In this state of complete stillness the shite “dances” with their spirit, revealing the dance through subtleties of mask angle, temporal length of stillness, posture, position stage, and physical tension. Superfluity is avoided strenuously, because as it is believed elegance is created when the ordinary is abbreviated, concentrated, and reduced to essentials. This idea of i-guse as an expressive medium also has an agnate in Kabuki theatre through the use of the mie posture. In Kabuki, the term kakegoe is used to describe not the rhythmic chanting of the ensemble, but rather the shouts of encouragement and family names in Kabuki, such as Danjuuro IX. If an actor did a part well, the audience yells out “The Ninth!” in reference to his work being as good as the work of the Ninth Patriarch of the Danjuuro family lineage. In Kabuki certain families perform certain roles exclusively. Kabuki also contains raw, abstract sounds made in the performance of the vigorous aragoto vocal style. In this style one distinguishes oneself in the powerful cries made at the actor’s highest emotional peaks, as exemplified in the nonsensical phrase “Yattoko tottcha, untoko da!” shouted out by the aragoto actor at the end of the play Shibaraku (“Wait A Moment”).

But it too has an i-guse type of ma infused zone, a frozen body/facial posture wherein all physical and psychic energy is thought to be concentrated in a single moment. This pose, known as mie, accentuates the emotional tension of a scene, the timing and presentation of which reveal the artistry of the actor, accompanied by a rolling and snapping of the head into a pose in which one eye is angled, or both eyes are crossed. Mie come in various forms, such as: (1) the Fudou mie, which resembles the facial and bodily features of Buddhist warrior-guardian Fudou Myo statuary seen at the gates of certain temples, (2) the Genroku mie – affected by the character of Shibaraku, in which he enters the stage shouting “Just a minute!” identifies himself, and then strikes a threatening mie in front of a group of villains , and (3) the Hippari no mie, which expresses the psychological tension between characters, sometimes several at a time. Unlike the (non-diegetic) sound effects that convey the psychological effects of the action onstage in both Noh and kabuki, the mie is a silent posture, and it is the mie especially that reveals the quality of the actor.



2 thoughts on “Aesthetic Concepts in Japanese Noh Theatre: 能楽の美

  1. Hello Daniel. I’m writing an article and am interested in your comments about Hana and the responsiveness of the Noh performer (you use the word improvisation here). Has any of this appeared in published form?

    1. This post is a small section of one of the chapters of my doctoral dissertation on the intersection of Zen Buddhism and free (non-idiomatic) improvisation. It has not been published, outside of the university holding a print copy in their archives.
      I’ll be glad to send you anything you need for the article. Cut and pasted below is the general abstract.


      DHARMA NOISE: Parergonality In Zen Buddhism And Non-Idiomatic Improvisation (York University, 2013).

      The objective of my dissertation was to explore philosophical and practical approaches to the study of improvisation in relation to Japanese Zen Buddhist doctrine and aesthetics. It specifically asked whether free form (non-idiomatic) improvisation can be practiced, and discussed Zen’s efficacy in establishing a structured regimen for technical study on a musical instrument. In order to complete this research objective, the historical development of Zen Buddhist doctrine and aesthetics was investigated and shown to be a non-unified rubric. By utilizing the idea of the parergon (via Kant and J. Derrida) I then demonstrated that practicing is an appropriate activity for improvisation when supplemented by the kata forms of Zen-influenced Japanese arts. The result of such supplementation in this case took the form of a series of exercises (the Chromatic Axis Concept) developed as a paradigm that itself acts as a supplement to improvisation. The establishment of such a regimen also suggested further research into the topic of pedagogy and Shintoism as an aesthetic or theological supplement, as well as gender issues in creative performance.

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