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The performing arts

Traditional theatre arts evolved in the context of broader cultural developments during different periods of Japan's history. No (or Noh) is the classic theatre of Japan, a form of masked drama which has its roots in sacred Shinto dances, but was formalized 600 years ago under the patronage of the Ashikaga shoguns and the aesthetic influence of Zen. The bare wooden stage with its painted backdrop of an ancient pine tree, the actors' stylized robes and the elusive expressions of the finely crafted masks create an atmosphere that is both understated and refined. The dramatic contrasts of stillness and sudden rushes of movement, and of periods of silence punctuated by sound, conjure up the essence of the Zen aesthetic. The kyogen interludes inject an element of comic relief into this otherwise stately ceremonial entertainment.

The 240 plays of the No repertoire are divided into five categories. Waki-no (or kami-no ) depict deities in stories of rejoicing; shura-mono portray famous warriors in tales of suffering and torment; and kazura-mono depict young and beautiful women in a gentle setting. The fourth group comprises kyojo-mono (mad-women pieces) and genzai-mono, depicting mad men or obsessed women. In the final category, kiri-no are fast-paced plays featuring supernatural beings, gods or demons. Though a traditional programme contains a selection from each group, with three or four kyogen interludes, most programmes nowadays consist of only two No plays and one kyogen.

The principal character in No plays is known as the shite, and may be either a ghost, mad person, or a superhuman or animal creature. The secondary character, the waki, on the other hand always represents people living in the present. Shite characters generally wear a mask, of male, female or demon type, which conceals the actor's presence and allows the characterization to dominate. The actor's skill lies in transcending the conventions of archaic language, mask and formalized costume to convey the dramatic tensions inherent in the play. Dance elements and musical effects aid directly in this process and draw on the folk entertainment tradition from which No is derived. Famously inaccessible to some, No is capable of achieving tremendously subtle and evocative effects.

By comparison, the kyogen interludes primarily aim at amusement and providing a counterpoint to the No drama. As with No, kyogen performers are all male and assume a variety of roles, some of which are completely independent of the No play, while others comment on the development of the main story. The language used is colloquial (though of sixteenth-century origin) and compared to the esoteric poetry of No, far more accessible to a contemporary audience. There is a greater emphasis on realistic portrayal in kogen and the actors only occasionally wear masks. Humour is achieved through exaggerated speech and formalized acting techniques and movements. Essentially a dialogue play between two characters or groups of actors, kyogen makes use of wit and satire to balance the mood of No.

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