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Developed in the 14th century, Noh is a form of musical drama. Noh actors are all men who wear masks depicting heroes, heroines, devils and so on. The performance is done very subtly using the body to express emotions and the storyline as the face is not visible. Noh masks are often handed down from generation to generation and are very valuable. Made from lacquered wood, some of these are true works of art.

Noh traditions are strictly adhered to even in modern times and the size of the stage, and other aspects of its visual display are based on original customs. These dramas were originally only performed for the Samurai and wealthy noblemen but are now performed at shrines and in theatres for the general public. Many performances continue throughout the day and it is common for the audience to only see a part of the total story. The musicians sit at the rear and the narrators at the side of a bare, unpainted wooden stage. Many plays are performed by torchlight the way they were many years ago.

The stories
Noh stories are usually very moralistic or have a strong social theme and have a very small cast. They often have vengeful ghosts, tragedies, love stories, battle stories, other fantasy creatures and a lot of dream sequences. Storylines frequently involve a character who, later in the play, transforms into something or someone else. If this is a demon, the eyes of the mask the character wears will be golden to represent demonic possession. The five types of plays are God plays, Warrior plays, Woman plays, Madness and Miscellaneous plays and Demon plays.

Masks and costumes
The masks used in Noh plays fall into 3 major categories; the woman, the old man and the warrior. Within each of these categories, the age, social status and emotions of that character can be seen through small differences in the masks. Socially higher characters have painted moustaches instead of real hair ones and older characters have carved lines. Emotion is portrayed through the movement of the actor but is also often clear through the wideness of the eyes and mouth and the carved shape of the brow and cheeks. Actual demon masks (as opposed to demonic possession masks) have carved horns and huge, pointed teeth.

Costumes are lavish in these productions, in stark contrast to the carved faces and the bare wood floors. Red signifies youth, white purity, and the main character's colours are more bright and ornate than the other characters. Musicians and stagehands wear black kimonos.

How do you become a Noh actor?
Training to become a Noh actor is very rigorous and starts from as young as 7 years old, sometimes even younger. The skill is handed down from generation to generation from father to son. Children learn the roles by rote and perform children's roles in the plays. Their first big support role is usually around the age of thirteen and the big main role is often that of a fierce warrior when they turn sixteen. Noh actors are not considered to reach their peak until around 60 years of age!

Only about 250 to 300 traditional Noh plays currently exist and very few new ones are being written so regular attendees of the plays often watch out for their favourites. One of the most famous of Japan's play writers is Chikamatsu Monzaemon who wrote many Noh dramas as well as other types of traditional Japanese theatre.