Noh Theatre: Costumes and Masks

Hakushiki jo, 16th-17th century, hinoki wood, horsehair, height 18 cm, Renzo Freschi Collection, Milan © Pietro Notarianni Noh Theatre Costumes and Masks

The Noh performance commences with the sound of flutes, un-melodic 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 theatre, 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. This is how Michael Dunn describes the atmosphere in his book Inspired By Design (Five Continents, 1999).

Noh Theatre Costumes and Masks

As Dunn wrote in his 2007 article for Asian Art Newspaper, ‘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 embodiment of a spirit that the actor takes time to contemplate and absorb before he puts it on for the play.

The performers in Noh theatre are ‘actors’ that contribute to the creation of the show, but while the hayashikata (musicians) and members of the jiuta (chorus), lined up on the stage wear formal ceremonial dress, the tachikata (actors) themselves, including the shite (main character) and waki (supporting characters), wear costumes befitting their characters. Noh actors can portray multiple roles. In the case of the main actor, he wears a mask for non-human representation such as deities, ghosts, or spirits (kami), as well as for female roles, however, they do not wear masks to represent normal, living, male characters.

Choice of Costume, Mask, and Accessories

The choice of costume, mask and accessories, even if already established by the type of drama being performed, also helps establish the character’s type. This, in part, is codified by tradition with variations and specific choices made according to the school of shite and waki actors on stage. However, it is (within certain limits) at the discretion of the main actor to bestow on the character special meaning and demonstrate the interpretation that the actor wishes to give a particular performance.

The actor does not attempt to imitate the character of his role, as Noh is on a much deeper level than in 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 as a maiden, a knowing courtesan, or a virago mother-in-law. In the Noh theatre performance, it is perfectly normal 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 of his adopted persona from the other-world – and the words he recites are profound beyond any superficial visual experience’.


The aesthetic terminology of Noh theatre 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 by holding a pose in which eons of time seem to pass – that the skill of a Noh actor is judged.

This complex and fascinating world of Noh theatre has now come to Italy this spring, in an exhibition that is part of the Venice 1600 programme to celebrate 16 centuries since the mythical founding of the city. The Museum of Oriental Art in Venice is showing Japanese Tales: Costumes and Stories from Noh Theatre, curated by the museum’s director Marta Boscolo Marchi.

Prince Henry of Bourbon-Parma

The bulk of the objects in the Venice exhibition come from Prince Henry of Bourbon-Parma’s considerable collection of Japanese art, which became part of the city-state in 1925. The middle section of the exhibition is dedicated to stage costumes and masks purchased by Prince Henry during his journey around the world between 1887 and 1889, which has been kept in the museum’s storage and have never exhibited to the public until now. There are also masks on loan from a private Italian collection, to enhance the theatrical costumes.

Noh Theatre Masks

Masks in traditional Japanese beliefs are sacred objects, in Shintoism in particular many objects are also sacred, such as mirrors, swords, jewels, as well as natural elements like mountains, rocks, trees and waterfalls, can be ‘bodies of divinity’ (shintai), a holding place where a kami, or spirit, resides and so a worshiped, conserved, and made sacred. In their base form, masks have been around since the time of the great actor and playwright Zeami Motokiyo (circa 1363-1443).

Noh theatre masks, in particular, hold a place of importance in the drama and are only worn by the main actor. A mask helps to raise the action out of the ordinary – to freeze it in time.  For the Noh actor, the mask of a particular character has almost a magical power. Before putting it on, he will study it until he feels the emotion absorbed within himself. When the mask is finally put on, the actor’s individuality recedes and he is nothing but the emotion to be depicted by the play’s character.

Made from hinoki (cedar) wood that has been carefully treated and lacquered with gofun (powder) from shells and painted, often with whiskers or beards inserted to add character. They are a much valued object and are often signed by leading craftsmen who, from the late Muromachi period (1336-1573) onwards, passed their skills down through generations of makers. Over time, the masks gradually could be differentiated by their style and expression, according to the type of character being portrayed.

Over 250 Types of Mask

Today, there are more than 250 types of masks that have been conserved and passed down the centuries to be reproduced for Noh plays. The genres in the current repertoires can be categorised into roughly 60 basic types. Some of the main genres are okina (a ritual dance predating noh) type masks; jo (elderly) type masks, which are frequently worn for characters of elderly men in the first parts of dramas, as well as warriors. Other categories includes masks of demons or deities, young or grown men, and to represent children or adolescents.

There are female masks for women at all stages of life: young, adult, and elderly. Then there are the masks for vindictive spirits (male and female), enchanted creatures, and masks for special or unique characters in the plays that cannot be categorised. The supporting actors and the principal role – only when acting the part of living adult male characters – do not wear masks and show themselves bare faced (hitamen), which makes the mask more difficult to use.

Noh Theatre Costumes

One of the most eye-catching part of Noh dramas are the costumes. They are an important part of the spectacle and help identify a character for the audience, set a scene, reflect the season and the time of a festival or event. The first costumes were probably not very different from the attire worn in everyday life during the Muromachi period (1336-1573). In medieval times, compared to the preceding Heian period (794-1185), when many-layered clothes were worn by the court and aristocracy, the dress for men of military lineage (bushi) gradually began to change and became more informal, as did the formal attire for both genders of the aristocracy. This simpler structure allowed for more decorative top garments.

Muromachi Warlords

Under the patronage of the Ashikaga shogunate in the Muromachi period, warlords such as Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu influenced styles and outer clothing became more luxurious. Japan had started to copy fabrics imported from China, as their gold and silver brocades were highly prized at court. During the Momoyama period (1568-1603), these early experiments incorporated the use of gold in fabric designs into the fabric that made them not only very expensive to make, but also highly desirable and much in demand by the aristocracy. By the 16th century, military heroes, aristocrats, actors, and a large number of the rest of the populace all took to wearing coloured and embellished garments. The kosode (the ancestor of the kimono), became the new fashionable garment – and the style was also adopted by Noh theatre of the time.

Japanese Textiles and the Kosode

The kosode became the main costume of Noh and an ideal garment to show off elaborate patterns and the textures of the textiles. Gold and silver brocades were considered especially suitable for theatrical costumes and Noh actors took to wearing glittering gold costumes, which would have given an almost other-worldly ambiance to the drama. These lavish costumes bear witness to the remarkable developments in the fields of spinning, weaving, embroidering and painting of fabrics and designs and their decoration on silk.

These early textile makers became established in the Nishijin area of Kyoto, near the emperor and the court, to cater to the growing demand of the aristocracy. The technique that best advanced Momoyama ideals in colour and texture is known as surihaku. For this, gold leaf was pressed over designs built-up with paste, the result being something like gold brocade, but producing much freer designs than were possible in any kind of woven fabric.

When surihaku was combined with embroidery for a wider range of colour and textures, it was known as nuihaku. The creativity involved in the making of Noh costumes, which has always been considered an art form, flourished more during this period than at any other time. The finely woven and highly decorative Nishijin-ori is a traditional fabric that is still produced in this area of Kyoto today.

Musical Instruments Used in Noh Drama

A smaller third of the exhibition explores the musical instruments used by the hayashi, the ensemble of four musicians that sit to the side of the state and accompany the drama. Comprising one wind instrument flute (fue or nokan) and three percussion instruments (kotsuzumi, otsuzumi, and taiko). The musicians highlight the entry and exit of the actors and accompany the singing and dance. This eerie whisper of the flute helps creates the other-worldly feeling necessary to Noh.

Finally, the contemporary staging of the dramas is evoked through the photographic documentation of Fabio Massimo Fioravanti, who has been studying Noh since 1989. Eighteen unpublished images have been selected from his archive to capture some salient moments of the plays and measured gestures of the actors, not only on the stage, but also behind the scenes – in the mirror room (kagami no ma), which is located behind the curtain (agemaku) and is where the main actor (shite) puts on the mask being used for the drama. This is also where the hayashi play oshirabe (warm-up music).

In addition to the photograph, there is the docufilm The Flight of the Heron by Giuliano Cammarata and Alessio Nicastro, dedicated to the work of the master Udaka Michishige.

Japanese Tales: Costumes and Stories from Noh Theatre, until 3 July, Museum of Oriental Art, Venice,