Noh, Japanese traditional masked play, is one of the oldest extant theatrical forms is the world. Noh performers are different from actors in the Western narrative drama in that they are simply storytellers who use their visual appearances and their movements to suggest the essence of their tale rather than to enact it. Little "happens" in a noh play, and the total effect is less that of a present action than of a simile or metaphor made visual. In earlier days, the educated spectators knew the story's plot and background very well, so they knew how to appreciate symbols and subtle allusions to Japanese cultural history contained in the words and movements. Yet spectators of today, in general, find it fairly difficult to understand such allusions, "Synopses and highlights" (though far from sufficient at the present stage), hopefully, may be of some help to such uninitiated spectators.
Noh developed from ancient forms of dance drama and from various types of festive drama at shrines and temples that had emerged by the 12c or 13c. Noh became a distinctive form in the 14c and was continually refined up to the years of the Tokugawa period (1603-1867). It became a ceremonial drama performed on auspicious occasions by professional actors for the warrior class as, in a sense, a prayer for peace, longevity, and the prosperity of the social elite. Outside the noble houses, however, there were performances that popular audiences could attend. The collapse of the feudal order with the Meiji Restoration (1868) threatened the existence of noh, though a few notable actors maintained its traditions. After World War II, however,the interest from a large number of educated youth led to a revival of the form.
There are five types of noh plays. The first type, the "kami" (god) play, involves a sacred story of a Shinto shrine; the second, "shura mono" (fighting play), centres on warriors; the third, "kazura mono" (wig play), has a female protagonist; the fourth type, varied in content, includes "gendai mono" (present-day play), in which the story is contemporary and "realistic" rather than legendary and supernatural, and the "kyojo mono" (mad-woman play), in which the protagonist becomes insane through the loss of the lover or child; and the fifth type, the "kiri" (final play), in which devils, strange beasts and supernatural beings are featured. In earlier days, five noh plays, one from each category mentioned above were performed on one occasion.
The first four plays were followed by interludes called "kyogen," but this practice is rarely observed today, because of the length of time it takes.There are three major noh roles: "shite," the principal actor, "waki," the subordinate actor, and "ai," the narrator who is performed by kyogen actors. Every noh actor is strictly dedicated to whatever role he is to play, in other words, an actor who plays "shite" never plays "waki."
Accompaniment is provided by four musicians (sometimes only the first three), who plays a flute ("nohkan"), a small hand drum ("kotsuzumi"), a large hand drum ("otsuzumi") and a large drum ("taiko"), and by a chorus ("jiutai") consisting of usually eight singers.
About 2,000 noh texts survive in full, of which about 230 remain in the modern repertoire. Zeami motokiyo (1363-1443) and his father Kan'ami Kiyotsugu (1333-84) wrote many of the beautiful and exemplary of noh texts, including "Matsukaze" by Kan'ami and "Takasago" by Zeami. Zeami also formulated the principles of the noh theatre that guided its performers for many centuries.
Relevance to Urusei Yatsura
A knowledge of what Noh is will come in handy watching Urusei Yatsura, it doesn't come up a lot, but occasionally you'll spot a Noh reference.
This is mostly true with the character of Ryoko Mendo, who often employs Noh performance into her behavior. She even often wears masks in the same fashion as Noh. The Mendo name has the character for "mask" in it, so it's only fitting that Ryoko have a thing for wearing them.