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Kano Naganobu, nō performance at the Imperial palace, after 1802, National Noh Theatre

This exhibition examines over 600 years of the material culture surrounding Japan’s oldest performing art: the nō theatre. Encompassing both dramatic nō plays and humorous kyōgen interludes, nō (literally ‘skill’ or ‘talent’) was developed by the dramatist Kan’ami (1333–84) and his celebrated son Zeami (c1363 – c1443) with the support of their samurai patrons.

The artworks on display date from the Muromachi period (1392–1573) to the Meiji period (1868–1912). The sumptuous costumes, enigmatic masks and luxuriously decorated musical instruments form an essential part of nō performances, while the alluring paintings and woodblock prints reveal the social context in which nō was produced and enjoyed.

Many of the works were commissioned by and handed down through influential families of the military aristocracy who were both generous patrons and fervent practitioners of these theatrical traditions. Ageless in their beauty and elegance, these objects are treasured today for their aesthetic appeal and are valued as important records of the evolution of nō theatre throughout the centuries.

Questions and activities

  • Research why the stage layout for nō theatre is like it is. Are there special names for the different parts? If you were in the audience, where would the best place to sit be?
  • Compare and contrast different theatre styles from different times and cultures. What are the similarities? What are the challenges for performers to ensure everyone in the audience can see and understand the action?
  • Imagine your favourite book is being turned into a nō play. Illustrate a few key props and what the characters might wear.