Dealing with Noh

The allure of Japan's oldest theatre form

By Sleiman Azizi    - 2 min read

It's an unwritten rule that it's okay to doze off in the middle of a noh play. It's tedious work to watch nothing and expect to be entertained, right? And yes, there is a lot of nothing in a noh play. Right? Sure. If you've been groomed to expect fireworks every five minutes. That still doesn't really answer the question that almost everyone asks, "Why?" Why watch something where almost nothing is happening?

Okay, fair enough. Noh is not for everybody. And yet, strangely, it has something for everybody. The old maxim of only getting out of something what you put into it very much applies here.

In the case of noh, putting much into it doesn't mean drilling yourself over studying classical Japanese grammar or literature. But if language is your thing, then there's your entry into noh. Nor do you have to care much for its elaborate costumes. Though, if you are into textiles, fashion and colour, then there's your window.

What if you like singing in the shower? Or humming a favourite tune or tapping a beat on the table? Perhaps you appreciate the moonwalk. Well then, if any of these things get a tick, then noh may just be just down your alley. A penchant for mythology or psychology? Woah, hold on. Could that be... no way, could noh theatre satisfy that craving too?

And the masks. One mustn't forget noh's masks. A woodworker's dream perhaps or an artisan's soul? Who knows? Just like each of the elements that make up noh, these most symbolic of noh's charms can be appreciated solely for what they are.

The next time you watch a noh performance, be it in the stylised, modern comfort of Tokyo's National Noh Theatre or outdoors during a rustic night lit by burning bonfires on Sado Island, your enjoyment of it is entirely up to you. Even if you do sleep it off trying to work out how.

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Sleiman Azizi

Sleiman Azizi @sleiman.azizi

A Japanese Permanent Resident who enjoys drooling over proper soba and sushi, Japanese aesthetics ticks all the right boxes for me and I enjoy stringing words together. I've almost one hundred published articles on Japan as well as five English language books written in the traditional Japanese zuihitsu-style.

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Elizabeth Scally 7 months ago
Without context, it’s hard to appreciate. Once you know some stories and understand the gestures, settings, and characters, it becomes interesting. It it can be a bit hypnotic. Small doses are good.
Sleiman Azizi Author 7 months ago
That's right, a bit of context goes a long way.
Kim B 7 months ago
This gives me more of a push to go and visit Sado Island!
Sleiman Azizi Author 7 months ago
Sado is great. I went there before I developed an interest in Noh so missed out on a lot of the details. Looking forward to getting back there.