At this time of year — and also in April and May, when it is neither too hot nor too cold for performers or audiences — takigi (firelight) noh is performed throughout Japan. Preferred venues are outdoor noh stages in the precincts of shrines, but as these are rare, special ones are often built in other suitable locations.

These performances are widely advertised — a picture of flames and a noh mask provides a clue, and regional tourist offices and information centers can be helpful in finding out dates, times and venues. It is worth the research and effort because takigi noh is one of the most hauntingly beautiful dramatic performances that can be experienced.

For a memorable, once-in-a-lifetime taste of the art form, there is nowhere better than the Asaba Ryokan near Shuzenji in the mountains of the Izu Peninsula south of Tokyo. There, with a pond in front and mountain greenery behind, an ancient noh stage that was once on the estate of the Daimyo Maeda family in Kanzawa has been reconstructed and is still in use. To see takigi noh in this superb location, from the luxury of a traditional ryokan (hotel) is to experience for a night the life of a 17th-century nobleman.

Events include one, sometimes two, noh performances together with a light-hearted kyogen comedy. Noh dramas evolved from sarugaku — ancient religious dances performed at temples and shrines — that were codified into plays by Kannami Kiyotsugu (1333-84) and his son Zeami Motokiyo (c. 1363-c.1443). The Sarugakucho area of fashionable Daikanyama in Tokyo’s Shibuya district is named after such early performances, and ancient origins are further suggested by the burial mound dating from A.D. 300-552 in its smart Hillside Terrace, and an excavated Jomon Period (c. B.C. 8,000-c. B.C. 300) settlement next to the junior high school.

The noh performance commences with the sound of flutes, unmelodic and unearthly, the whole purpose of which is to underscore a departure from the day-to-day and an entry into the world of spirits. Throughout the play, supporters on the stage emit strange whoops, and sharply tap small drums as if to punctuate the actors’ words and add resonance to their meaning. In noh, the pervasive influence of Zen is apparent in the editing out of all that is unnecessary, so that a single step can signify a long journey to the mountains of China, or a raised sleeve, deep inconsolable grief.

For most plays, the main actor usually wears an elaborate costume and a mask — often treasures handed down through generations of the noh guild or family of which the actor is a member — and takes the role of a visitor from the other-world: a vanquished warrior or the ghost of a princess. This mask is not a face, but the embodiment of a spirit that the actor takes time to contemplate and absorb before putting it on for the play.

The actor does not attempt to imitate the character of his role; noh is on a much deeper level than kabuki, for example, where the onnagata (a male actor playing the role of a woman) tries to be as womanly a woman as possible — whether a virgin girl, a knowing courtesan or a virago mother-in-law. In noh performances, it is perfectly usual for a heavy man of mature years with a gruff, deep voice to take the part of a beautiful young princess from the world of spirits. The mask itself is sufficient allusion to his adopted persona from the other-world, and the words he recites are profound beyond any superficial sensuality.

The aesthetic terminology of noh all but escapes a clear interpretation. The word “yugen” is one of the most often-heard, and suggests a beauty that is hinted at — elusive and half-hidden, as if glimpsed in the brief parting of mist; a beauty that by its distance and transience leaves a lingering and aching sense of bittersweet sadness. It is by his ability to conjure this ethereal quality — tilting his mask to catch a special angle of light, or holding a pose in which eons of time seem to pass — that the skill of a noh actor is judged.

Although noh can be seen year-round at any number of indoor theaters in Japan, such a highly refined culture is far too fragile to bloom under electric spotlights with the background hum of air conditioning.

It is therefore worth taking the trouble to visit a performance of takigi noh in order to experience it in its originally intended form, as it was seen before the modern period. This is a world where beauty is dependent on shadows, gloom and soft rays of low-angle light.

Fires crackle in braziers around the stage as the main actor appears from the side approach to the stage. His costume does not drape his body or swirl with movement, but seems tied in a strange way so he appears as some kind of gliding sculpture. The daylight is fading and the gold brocade of his robe catches beams from the burning wood. Pausing for emphasis and quite still but for a barely-trembling fan, he is truly an apparition visiting briefly from another world.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.