Japanese Noh and Kyōgen Plays: Staging Dichotomy


Zvika Serper


The article explores the serious Noh and comic Kyōgen plays that comprise together the Japanese traditional aristocratic Nōgaku theatre as two dichotomous forms that complement one another. The various dramatic elements of each are molded in a harmony of essential contrasts, such as fiction and reality, as well as of various formative contrasts, originating in the Chinese philosophy of yin and yang (in and yō in Japanese) that create a balance and dynamism. These contrasts between Noh and Kyōgen and within each of them are represented in the two-part unique ritualistic piece Okina (The Old Man) that features Nōgaku’s most essential dichotomous dramatic concepts—the human/superhuman, blessing/threat and fiction/reality. The whole corpus of Noh plays is divided into two dichotomous classifications: Phantasmal Noh (mugen nō) and Actual Noh (genzai nō), expressing their level of reality and their structure. The performative elements in the plays create an additional dichotomous classification of Noh plays: into Dramatic Noh (geki nō), in which in action and mimesis are more essential; and Refined Noh (fūryū nō), in which there is more chanting and dance. These divisions of the Noh plays have led to parallel intertextual divisions within the Kyōgen plays. An analysis of the main identities and themes of the five-play cycle of Noh (gods; ghosts of warriors; women; miscellaneous characters; and demons-beasts), juxtaposed with the characters and thematic messages of the Kyōgen repertoire, reveals the entire range of existential and human experience. The Noh and Kyōgen repertoires each also contains a minor manifestation of the other’s form, blurring the boundaries between them. In addition to the serious appearance of Kyōgen actors in the ai kyōgen interlude and as common characters within the Noh plays, there are very serious Kyōgen plays that are similar in content and form to the Noh plays; and, on the other side, several Noh plays include comic aspects that are similar to the world of Kyōgen. The Noh and Kyōgen artists’ awareness of the concurrent poles of these contrasts enables them to employ interaction, fusion and correlation in order to create within the corpus of about 500 Noh and Kyōgen plays a unique and rich texture for each play based upon these contrasts.

Comparative Drama is carried by JSTOR and Project MUSE.