Gender Crossings: Women in Noh

The Noh repertoire includes two groups of plays centered on women:

Illumined by grace

Illumined by grace

Woman plays constitute the third category of Noh plays and are often cited as the finest examples of the aesthetic of yugen.  In almost all cases, these plays portray women as delicate and either quietly resigned or quietly plaintive, with a tendency to be submerged in memories of love.  It is no surprise that some feminists find these plays problematic, and indeed the only woman play represented in Chiori Miyagawa’s This Lingering Life is Hagoromo, in which the main character is not haunted by old romantic attachments.

Mad with rage

Mad with rage

Madwoman plays most often portray women as broken by grief or transfigured by rage.  Alternatively, madness can result from spirit possession or acute sensibility.  In his book entitled The Noh Theater, Kunio Komparu even cites one play in which madness is caused by being “overcome by excessive elegance”!

This Lingering Life includes characters from two madwoman plays:


  • A mother traveling in search of her lost son is based on the crazed mother in the Noh play Sumidagawa.   In the Noh play, the widowed single mother searches for her son, who has been kidnapped for sale into slavery.  She learns during the play that he has died, and near the end she encounters his spirit.  Other versions of Sumidagawa include a classic kabuki play of the same title and a transposition into Western opera, Benjamin Britten’s Curlew River.
  • The Woman with Tragic Hair is based on the Princess Kagami in the Noh play Semimaru.  In that play, a nobleman has ostracized two of his children:  his blind son, a gifted musician who sees his exile as a spiritual opportunity, and his daughter, who is subject to sporadic derangement and wanders obsessively.  In the play, the sister accidentally comes upon the hut where her brother now lives; they have a tender reunion, which the brother yearns to prolong, but his sister insists on continuing her own separate journey.

SemimaruTsukiokaKogyoNotice that in both these cases, the madwoman is wandering.  During the period portrayed in the plays, women of the upper classes did not travel by themselves.  During a workshop I attended this past weekend, lecturer David Crandall of Theatre Nohgaku suggested that madwomen who wander in Noh might, in some cases, be feigning madness in order to be allowed mobility.

Other female characters in This Lingering Life are not precisely mad but nonetheless in peril due to rage, which they might not even fully recognize.  Miyagawa captures, in a thought-provoking way, the resentment of an adult responsible for long-term care of a demented parent.  She also provides more than one example of parents who are ostensibly concerned for a child’s good but really motivated by selfish concerns.

The Gaze from Without

That both categories of Noh plays centered on women represent images of women under a male gaze is reinforced by the fact that male actors have played female roles from the inception of Noh until the present day.  A female character is possessed narratively by her memories, as imagined by a male playwright, and physically by the male actor who embodies her on stage.

Early theorists of Noh made no attempt to hide this relationship.  Here is Zeami’s advice on how a Noh actor, presumed to be male, should approach the role of a woman:

A female shite, from the website of the Yokohama Noh Theater

A female shite, from the website of the Yokohama Noh Theater

In general, a young shite is the most suitable actor to play the part of a woman.  Nevertheless, playing such a part represents a considerable undertaking.  If the actor’s style of dress is unseemly, there will be nothing worth watching in the performance.  When it comes to impersonating high-ranking women of the court…since the actor cannot easily view their actual deportment, he must make serious detailed inquiries concerning such matters…When it comes to impersonating an ordinary woman, however, the actor will be familiar with the appropriate details, and so the task will not be difficult…When performing kusemai, shirabyoshi, or mad women’s roles, the actor should hold a fan or a sprig of flowers, for example, loosely in his hand in order to represent female gentleness…his hips and knees should be straight, and his bodily posture pliable.  As for his head posture, if he bends backward, his face will appear coarse…Then too, if he holds his neck too stiffly, he will not look feminine…In the case of a woman’s role, proper dressing is essential.  

(On the Art of the Noh Drama:  The Major Treatises of Zeami, Rimer and Yamazaki, 10-11)

Women’s Words

From the Tale of Genji

From the Tale of Genji

This is not to say that a Noh actor or playwright of Zeami’s time would have been limited, in his understanding of women’s experience, to having made “serious detailed inquiries” as to women’s behavior and dress.  In contrast with Western literature, in which works by women were slow to gain cultural status, Japanese literature had, for centuries prior to Zeami’s time, provided extensive documentation of women’s lives from their own perspectives.  Noh actors and playwrights, who were encouraged to study their literary forbears, would have been familiar with the work of Heian-period authors such as Murasaki Shikibu (The Tale of Genji), Sei Shonagon (The Pillow Book), and Ono no Komachi (one of the Six Poetry Immortals).  Several classic Noh plays appropriate characters or language from the Tale of Genji, and there are five plays in which Ono no Komachi features prominently.  In one of the Komachi plays, Zeami’s Sekidera Komachi, an abbot brings a group of aspiring young poets to meet Komachi, who is by now a hundred years old and living in penury:

Sekidera Komachi, Kogyo

Sekidera Komachi, Kogyo

“People say that the old woman who has built her hut at the foot of the mountain knows all the secrets of the art of poetry.”  (From Sekidera Komachi, trans. Karen Brazell)

Zeami’s respect for Komachi as a literary model makes me attentive to a line that he assigns to her later in the play.  In the Chinese preface to the classic poetry anthology Kokinshu, Komachi’s work had been appraised as follows:

“Ono no Komachi’s poetry…has elegance but lacks strength; it reminds one of a sick woman wearing cosmetics.” (Quoted in Tales of Ise: Lyrical Episodes from Tenth-Century Japan, Helen Craig McCullough)

Another translation sounds a little less pejorative but remains unsettling, insofar it hints at a glamorization of pain by those not suffering it:

“Her poetry is moving and lacking in strength. It reminds us of a beautiful woman suffering from an illness.  Its weakness is probably due to her sex.” (From Kokin Wakashû: The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry, Helen Craig McCullough)

The line Zeami gives to Komachi, in undisputed allusion to the Kokinshu preface, omits the pathological overtones:

Komachi as an old woman, Yoshitoshi

Komachi as an old woman, Yoshitoshi

“My poems lacked strength because they were a woman’s.”  (From Sekidera Komachi, trans. Karen Brazell)

A woman’s poetry might, after all, reflect a consciousness of her social station—the threat of isolation should she fail to maintain the interest of a man—rather than a constitutional fragility inherent in her gender.  Three of the five plays featuring Komachi as the main character represent her as abandoned and destitute in her old age, in keeping with a tradition concerning her life.

Because I trusted
someone who grew tired of me,
my life, alas, must be
as empty as a rice ear
blasted by harsh autumn winds

(KKS 822, from Kokin Wakashû: The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry, Helen Craig McCullough)

The role of the aged Komachi is especially revered in Noh and restricted to the most august practitioners of the art form.

Gender Ambivalence and Performance

While Zeami does not question the ability of a male actor to play a woman’s role, he discusses the difficulty of impersonating a character of one gender who is possessed by a being of the other gender:

…When it comes to playing a madwoman possessed by a warrior or a demon, for example, the circumstances are made quite difficult for the actor.  Thinking to act out the true nature of the being who possesses such a character, the actor will show masculine wrath while playing a woman, and his performance will seem quite inappropriate.  On the other hand, if the actor concentrates on the womanly traits of the character, there will be no logic to the possession.  Similarly, when a male character is possessed by a woman, the same difficulty arises.  In sum, to avoid plays with such characters is an important secret of our art.

That the play Sotoba Komachi, written by Zeami’s father Kan’ami, has the female shite possessed by the spirit of a man she mistreated makes me wonder whether Zeami is referring to the difficulty of performing that play.

The actor's chin is visible

The actor’s chin is visible

It must be noted that when a male actor plays a female role in Noh, there is no attempt to trick the audience into thinking the actor is female.  Around the mask of a winsome young beauty, one might very well observe the jowls of the middle-aged male who has assumed her role.   The idea that gender might be performed rather than inherent, while relatively novel in the West, has been an assumption in Noh for hundreds of years.

For an actor to be conscious of his own character from without, incidentally, applies not just to preparation but to the experience of performance.    In The Noh Theater, Komparu quotes Zeami’s precept that an actor must cultivate a “detached view,” the ability to see his figure on the stage as the audience sees him.  While most Western acting theory prescribes that  the actor inhabit the character while regarding the audience as behind a fourth wall, the theory of Noh performance prescribes “a fusion of the minds of actor and audience…only when this happens is [the actor] truly able to perceive himself as a performer.” (Komparu, 16).

No Easy Bridge to Cross

Fumiko Enchi, Wikipedia

Fumiko Enchi, Wikipedia

In the twentieth century, and especially in the later twentieth century, as it became not only acceptable but incumbent upon the critics of culture to question the exclusion of women from various social domains, authors and scholars in Japan and the West began to give focused attention to representations of the female gender in traditional Japanese art and society.  One of the most important female authors in Japan during the twentieth century was Fumiko Enchi, who reinterpreted the behavior of purported madwomen, such as the vengeful Lady Rokujo in Aoi no Ue, in terms of pre-Buddhist shamanistic practices, and in 1997 American scholar Doris Bargen  wrote the  oft-cited  work A Woman’s Weapon: Spirit Possession in the Tale of Genji, in which she attempted to “locate [spirit possession] within the politics of Heian polygynous society and interpret spirit possession as a predominantly female strategy adopted to counter male strategies of empowerment.”  Bargen argues that although Murasaki Shikibu, author of The Tale of Genji, was to some extent bound to reflect the prevalent values of her male-dominated society, she was also able to convey a contrasting perspective through “indelible traces in the text” (Bargen, xvi).

Chiori Miyagawa

Chiori Miyagawa

Chiori Miyagawa, despite having been born in Japan, does not identify herself as a Japanese author.  Still, insofar as she utilizes stories from her ancestral literary tradition, she participates in the modern project of allowing characters usually embodied by males on the Noh stage to speak in female voices.

Of course, to interrogate gender representations in literature does not automatically result in pervasive cultural change, especially when time-honored artistic traditions are at stake.  Although with the Meiji restoration of late nineteenth century, women began to be permitted on the stage after centuries of prohibition, it was not until 1948 that a woman was first recognized as a professional Noh performer, and today, although there are at least 200 registered female Noh actors in Japan, their performance opportunities tend to be limited and their participation controversial.

A 35-Year Tradition of Engaging with Tradition

On the other side of the Pacific, where at least in the dominant culture no tradition has existed for as long as Noh has in Japan, the rationale for restricting Noh performance to males has been far less compelling than in the home country of the art form.  Theatre of Yugen was not only founded by a  woman, Yuriko Doi, but has consistently given female actors the chance to animate roles that would, on a traditional Noh or Kyogen stage, be played by male actors.

Yuriko Doi in the Kyogen play Kawakami, photo by Yoko Nomura

Yuriko Doi in the Kyogen play Kawakami, photo by Yoko Nomura

Doi and her successors Libby Silber (former joint artistic director) and most recently Jubilith Moore have propagated what is by now a 35-year “tradition of engaging with tradition” while maintaining creative relations with other female Noh performers.  Current artistic director Jubilith Moore has studied with both Yuriko Doi and Kinue Oshima, the only female professional in the Kita school of Noh, and as director of This Lingering Life, she has carried on the practice of casting against gender, allowing women to play male roles and men to play female roles (as well as casting some women as women and men as men).

Jubilith Moore with ensemble member Sheila Berotti

Jubilith Moore with ensemble member Sheila Berotti

A Sobering Thought

While This Lingering Life does not require an understanding of the underlying Noh plays, the experience and pathos of the situations depicted will be considerably enhanced in audience members who are sensitive to resonances between a modern character in Miyagawa’s play and the corresponding Noh.   Recently I had the chance to watch films of both Sumidagawa and Curlew River at the NOHspace, thanks to Mark Frey of the JETAANC Kabuki Club, and was struck by acute sympathy for the mother in each play.  Later I had cause to reflect that those of us who live in large urban areas of the United States see people under the duress of mental illness on such a frequent basis that we do not necessarily stop to consider what grief or other misfortune induced the condition of each one.  (“Just ignore her,” says Backpacker 2 to his companion in This Lingering Life, and we recognize the attitude, perhaps even the utterance.)  That each person has an individual story is important to remember but easy to forget.  It is one of the cardinal virtues of art that, by depicting a fictional character’s tragedy in an unforgettable way, it can help us to be more attentive to those around us who are similarly afflicted but who do not have the benefit of advocates with the gifts and intention of Motomasa or Miyagawa.

Further Reading

The Noh plays mentioned in this post are among the most affecting in the Noh repertoire.  For more information, see the following links:


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2 Responses to Gender Crossings: Women in Noh

  1. mgwtsn says:

    Enjoyed reading this!

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