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Noh, Bugaku, Kyogen, Kabuki

“No has repeatedly been called the world’s most perfect theatrical form, a seamless fabric of spoken and sung dialog, instrumental music, pantomime, and dance, with its masks and costumes providing a rare treat for the eye.”  (Friedrich Perzynski, Japanese No Masks)

During intervals or between Noh plays, there is a half-hour kyogen performance. Kyogen is an elaborate art form in itself, derived from various traditions including sarugaku, kusemai (mime performed by Buddhist monks while reciting poetry), kagura (Shinto fan dances used to invoke the presence of God), eunen (dances performed by Buddhist priests at festivals), dengaku (harvest dances), bugaku (Imperial court dances from the twelfth century) and furyu (popular songs and dances of the fourteenth century, performed at intervals to ward off pestilence or achieve salvation). A kyogen may reinforce or explain the moral of the Noh play, or it may offer nonsensical comic relief.

Bugaku is the traditional dance that has been performed to select elites mostly in Japanese imperial courts for over twelve hundred years. In this way it has been an upper class secret, although the dance was opened to the public after World War II. The dance is marked by its slow, precise and regal movements. The dancers wear intricate traditional Buddhist costumes, which usually include equally beautiful masks. The music and dance pattern is often repeated several times. It is performed on a square platform, usually 6 yards by 6 yards.


Noh and Kyogen

Ko-omoteUsobuki - 1-For an American audience, I have wondered how to describe the main difference between Kyogen and Noh theater. To my mind, an analogy would be to liken Noh to formal opera, e.g. Aida or Don Giovanni, and Kyogen to Gilbert and Sullivan light opera, e.g. HMS Pinafore. The object of Kyogen is to make the audience laugh.

Ko-omote is one of the most familiar Noh masks. Usobuki is one of the common Kyogen comedy masks. For anyone interested in further research, a good place to start is with Friedrich Perzynski’s Japanese No Masks from Dover Publications. It includes 300 illustrations of Noh and Kyogen masks.