Noh - between Nothing and Being

Tomoki Ishikawa

Le drame, c’est quelque chose qui arrive. Le Nô, c’est quelqu’un qui arrive.

Paul Claudel

Our understanding of the world and ourselves is more or less immersed in the obviousness of the “being-able-to” of the body; we assume unconsciously that we are able to walk, stand, utter – a fair assumption to make, having in mind the self-evident exception of certain disabilities. Our world is, say, a world filled with our pouvoir; je peux, donc je suis.

However, once you stand on the stage of Noh, you couldn’t help noticing that you’re not actually walking. Just take video of yourself walking on the stage – how miserable you look! I bet your walk looks as awkward as a wooden doll. No, I don’t mean to disgrace you… it is quite natural for the untrained, and, of course, I am not the exception.

The importance of walking in Noh is incomparable to other form of drama (e.g. opera and musical); if you watch the attached video, I believe you would be convinced that there is nothing left for the performance if it were not for the beautiful walking. Thus, walking well on stage is at the core of Noh performance, and Noh has developed its own mode of walking – such that no one walks in that way in daily lives, nevertheless it looks more natural than any way of walking on the stage.

People often say, even after the years of training, “I cannot walk on the stage”. This, of course, does not mean that they couldn’t literally put their legs forward one after another; these remarks indicate the inner experience of their bodily move, and thus should be taken phenomenologically. Trying to walk on the Noh stage always involves a sort of conflict between two modes of body (in which I mean the mode of using the body that could differ depending on person or culture), namely, that of our daily lives and that of Noh. This is a moment of the demolition of your native mode of body; your possibility turns into impossibility, namely the impossibility in bodily movements. You are always making it impossible (or at least difficult) for you to use your own body just by standing on the stage.

Yet, some question remains: How can it be possible to express something on the stage, if the proper bodily movements are utterly impossible? And what is the philosophical and aesthetical implication of it?


Let me quote two remarks from two utterly different context.

(1) What is left over if I subtract the fact that my arm goes up from the fact that I raise my arm? (L. Wittgenstein)

(2) When Kenzo Kondo (1890-1988) held up his fan in Yuya, it took my breath away…. This old man was thinking nothing; he was just moving his body in such-and-such way. But it was absolutely beautiful. I have no other words than beautiful. The story, the philosophy behind the scene, they didn’t matter at all for me here; it was just the beauty of a beautiful woman holding up a fan…. (Rintaro Hara)

Noh is, in its nature, not expressive as any other theatrical drama. There are few stage settings, with only four (or sometimes three) musical instruments, while the actors’ facial expressions are replaced with peculiar masks, their looks do not remind those in real life and the expressive dancing movements are rare and scarce. The beauty of Noh lies in a radical simplicity, cutting everything unnecessary for the sake of the performance. If the actor sheds real tears in a melancholic scene, then those tears express no more than the sadness of the individual. In Noh, the actor just moves his hand in front of the eye of the mask, as if to say he is trying to wipe the tears. And by cutting the “real” tears from acting, the sadness could transcend the limited sadness of the actor himself.

Negation is a way of removing the limitation; and, the intention of the actor, which we generally think is necessary in artistic expression, is not the exception. There is nothing intentional in the beauty that Hara felt in quote (2); rather, the intention of the actor to make himself look beautiful would be an interruption in the aesthetic experience. What is left over if I subtract the fact that my arm goes up from the fact that I raise my arm? I would answer, there lies the beauty of Noh. Hisao Kanze (1925-1978), one of the most prominent Noh actor in the modern times, once said, “I want just to sit there on the stage just like a flower in the field”. No other words would well describe the mindset of Noh actor on the stage.

Flower, or hana in Japanese, is the key term in the aesthetic theory of Noh. Zeami, the founder of Noh in the medieval times, used this term frequently in his writings. He would say, the flower is the heart, the seed is the skill, or, acting as an old man (…) should be like a flower on an old tree. A flower is, as Hisao Kanze said, not blooming in order to show itself to somebody. It blooms, say, naturally. This is what nature is like (although we should also note that the concept of nature did not exist in premodern Japan – or to be clearer: what Japanese conceive of nature is somewhat different from that in the West, and Japanese language didn’t even have the corresponding vocabulary to “nature” in the premodern time, although we now have a word Shizen as a translation of the western concept of nature; I just thought we need to be aware of this slight, yet sometimes important, difference in nuance); nature, where the intention of humans is negated, as a source of beauty. There is no subject and object in it. The blooming-of-flower as one single event is taking place; you are not raising your arm, there is only the going-up-of-your-arm. The stage, should then need to be the field of the event.


The reversal of the opposed two can often happen in Noh. Take Izutsu, a Noh masterpiece, for instance. The highlight of this drama is the moment that the female main character sees the image of her husband as she reflects herself onto the water in the well; but that woman is actually a ghost that appeared again in the real world; whereas the drama is itself of course, a fiction. Thus, this story stands on the nexus of at least three axis of opposing notion: man-woman, ghost-human, fiction-reality. And we have not even exhausted the story. Every change needs its transcendental ground which makes it possible for the thing to change (although I would like to avoid the term “transcendental” in this essay…). The field I mentioned here implies the transcendental basis of the play, which should necessarily be the transcendental ground for the overlapping and reversal of the opposing terms that appears in the story. And I suggest such field (or “transcendenta” basis) in Noh should be nature, or absolute nothingness, which transcends the conflict through the process of negation, which brings me back to the impossibility of bodily movement in the first part of this essay.

The field I have just mentioned needs to make those reversal possible as a mediator. A field where everything can take place – you might imagine something like a white cube – a white, plain, cube-shaped space. Indeed, everything seems possible in the white cube, just as you can draw anything on white paper. White cube is in a sense a negation of shape and colour, and thus is suitable for this purpose. But what if the Noh stage were a white cube? You will probably interpret this stage as a message from the artist, that they expressed a field that makes everything possible by the white cube. Here remains one thing unnegated e.g. the intention. You need to negate twice if you are to truly negate something (and this is one of the greatest discovery in the Japanese modern philosophy, by Kitaro Nishida (1870-1045)). In a sense, the nature is a richest field by being absolute nothingness.

The wooden Noh stage can be a field of Noh in this sense. And, as I said above, the actor also needs to be the field of nothingness. The actor starts from nothing – I mean, untrained – and then proceeds to being –being a skilled Noh actor – and finally reach nothing – where he is no longer pretending to act. And by being absolutely nothing, the actor’s performance can gain the absolute existence. Noh is always inbetween; between being and nothing.

For more information regarding the above Noh performance, visit:

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