The oldest dramatic
form preserved in Japan is No theater, which attained
its contemporary form at the fourteenth-century Ashikaga
court. In the 1980s, there were five major No groups and
a few notable regional troupes performing several
hundred plays from a medieval repertoire for a popular
audience, not just for an elite. A No play unfolds
around the recitation and dancing of a principal and
secondary figure, while a seated chorus chants a story,
accentuated by solemn drum and flute music. The dramatic
action is mimed in highly stylized gestures symbolizing
intense emotions, which are also evoked by terse lyrical
prose and dance. Standardized masks and brilliant
costumes stand out starkly against the austere, empty
stage with its symbolic pine tree backdrop.
No stories depict
legendary or historical events of a tragic cast, infused
with Buddhist ideas. The foreboding atmosphere is
relieved by comic interludes (kyogen) played
during the intermission. A few experimental plays have
been developed by authors such as Mishima Yukio
(1925-70), and in the 1980s a Christian No play was
written by a Sophia University philosophy professor and
daringly performed at the Vatican for Pope John Paul II.
The National No Theater has revived popular interest in
this ancient art form by supporting experimental No
plays in the late 1980s.
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