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January 10, 2004

Noh and Shinto

The spiritual roots of Noh lie in a much earlier tradition than Zen. They are evident in the Shinto-style stage and the back wall with its painted pine tree. This is thought to be a reference to the Yogo Pine at Nara's Kasuga Shrine, to which Kannami had been attached. One day an old man was seen dancing beneath the tree, who turned out to be the spirit of the shrine in human form. The legend tells of the essence of Noh and the bond between men and gods. Before the sacred pine, the ritual drama realises a magical moment of transformation when the spirit world stands revealed.

Dance as an offering to the gods has a long tradition in Shinto. It is said to have its origins with the goddess Uzume, who performed on a wooden tub, stamping her feet and exposing herself in ecstasy. This was because the sun-goddess, Amaterasu, had withdrawn within a cave, plunging the world into darkness. Uzume's dance provoked clapping and cheering from the onlookers, which made Amaterasu peep out to see what was happening. A mirror was held up to blind her with her own brilliance, and a rope slipped across the entrance to the cave to stop her going back in. Sunshine was restored.

The spiritual dimension of Noh is evident in the spurning of realism. The concern is not with the material world, but with spirits, lost souls, and the supernatural. Redemption, passion, recollection, and longing are the themes. The music is eerie, the movements unworldly, and the lead character masked. There is no scenery, and barely any props save for symbolic markers to indicate a gate or boat.

Posted by at January 10, 2004 09:16 AM

Thanks very much. I did not know about the shrine. Is "Kannami" correct? Shouldn't this be kagami, to go with the "kagami kabe" or mirror wall?

Posted by: timtak at January 10, 2004 01:51 PM

Kanami was the father of Zeami. Kanami made the rough material for Noh, Zeami refined it. Together they are recognised as the founders of Noh....

The mirror wall is a fascinating subject. Recently I went to a small shrine in Kobe where the mirror was so angled that when you stood on the place to pray you saw yourself in the mirror.
Nice conceit....

Posted by: John Dougill at October 18, 2004 01:02 AM


Posted by: martin at July 21, 2010 10:53 PM