Thoughts on Kurokawa Noh in Kyoto

Yesterday I attended a performance of the Kurokawa Noh at the Kongo Noh theatre in Kyoto. Kurokawa is a hamlet part of Tsuruoka City in Yamagata Prefecture, in the deep of the Japanese snowland. A tradition of performing Noh plays has been transmitted within the city by two groups, the kami-za and shimo-za. Noh is performed on a number of occasions during the year, corresponding to religious festivals related to the local shinto shrine. There are various videos available online, perhaps the most interesting is this, made on the occasion of an event in collaboration with the Asia-Pacific Database on Intangible Cultural Heritage (ACCU), which worked to preserve the Kurokawa tradition from the threat of disappearing. More about this project here. Basic readings on Kurokawa Noh at the bottom of the post.


Kurokawa Noh was last performed in Kyoto 40 years ago, and the presenter pointed out how all those who performed in that occasion have now passed away. The Kurokawa Noh kami-za troupe who performed today is touring Japan -they were in Ise just yesterday- promoting this unique performance style that was transmitted in a condition of semi-isolation from the urban styles. When, during the ‘noh renaissance’ period, Kanze Hisao pointed out the need to ‘go back to Zeami’ in order to find the ‘true’ essence of Noh, he immediately thought of Kurokawa Noh, of which he became a great fan.

Yesterday’s programme consisted of one Kyogen, Konkwai (spelled こんくわい or こんかい) which is the Kurokawa version of the famous Kyogen Tsurigitsune (Fox Trapping), and the Noh Dojoji (Dojo Temple), among the most difficult plays of the two respective repertoires. The extent to which the Kurokawa tradition of both Noh and Kyogen plays differs from the urban tradition of the five schools is evident in many aspects of performance. First of all, actors chant/recite using the local dialect, and have a peculiar way to enunciate that makes the text difficult to discern even for the experienced  spectator. Actually a Kongo actor friend of main told me it was difficult to understand what they say even backstage (!). I was impressed by the rather low voice of the actors , and I wonder whether this is not because Kurokawa Noh is performed on stages within homes of the villagers, not theatres or open spaces (just my speculation). The quality of acting and the overall effect is that of amateur performance – all performers have regular jobs – Heike Grossman explains this condition in her article. Tsurigitsune lacked the intensity that makes it one of the most difficult Kyogen plays. I could not help but notice how movements are far from the exactitude and concentration of ‘standard’ Kyogen performances. Among the many differences from the usual Kyogen was the attire of the shite in the second half of the play: the mask looks bigger, and the costume is a white overall with what seems to be a real fox skin-fur attached to its back. Unfortunately this part of the play, usually very dramatic because of the jumps and screams of the fox tempted to snatch the bait, was rather uninteresting in the Kurokawa version.

Kurokawa Noh – Tsurigitsune. Note the fox fur costume.

Various details show that this kind of performance belongs to the more ‘popular’, or ‘rougher’ sphere of performing arts: at some point the main actor in Tsurigitsune dropped his fan, and simply picked it up – you would never see this in a normal performance, one of the koken stage assistants wore glasses, members of chorus for Dojoji talked to each other during the performance, etc…

I found Dojoji much more interesting than Tsurigitsune. Here are some thoughts.

  • The jiutai chorus entered the stage from the hashigakari bridge instead of the usual kiri-do, and came sitting much closer to the front than a usual Noh performer. Usually the heavy bell (some 70kgs) is brought on stage attached to a pole carried on shoulders by a great number of Kyogen actors. Then the rope that will hold the bell has to get into a pulley fixed at the centre of the roof of the stage. This operation, performed by Kyogen actors by attaching the rope to a long pole, is rather difficult because the rope is thick and the pulley narrow, and takes as much time as needed to be completed, almost a performance within the performance in itself ‘will it go through?’… ‘will it not?’. In the Kurokawa version a smaller, much lighter, more realistically decorated bell is brought on stage by three Kyogen actors, while the rope has already been installed before the performance began. My speculation is that it is too difficult for them to do it as part of the performance, and they don’t know how much it will actually take them.
  • The flute player sits facing the maku curtain, as in the Kiyotsune variation ‘koi-no-netori’.
  • Actors (both waki and shite) lift themselves up on their toes as a recurring kata – today this movement is only performed by waki actors in First Category (God Noh) plays.
  • Everything unfolds at a much faster pace than a standard Noh, and not before long we hear clapping from the kagami no ma mirror room, signalling that the shite is ready to enter the stage.
  • In standard version of the play, where the mae-shite wears a karaori brocade kimono in tsubo-ori style over a silver foiled surihaku undergarment and another black karaori wrapped in koshimaki style around the waist. The Kongō school uses the magojirō mask, exclusive to Kongō. In the Kurokawa version we saw the shite entered with a simple karaori in kinagashi ‘straight’ style, and wore a mask that looked like shakumi or fukai, for middle-aged women roles.
  • As the presenter explained to us, Kurokawa Noh uses to put the katsura-obi headband on top of the mask, instead of wearing it behind it. I am not sure when the shift took place in Noh history, but I think that in the past this is the way katsura-obi was used. At some point, probably in order to show more of the beautiful mask, or not to change their looks by donning something over it, this headband started to be worn behind the mask, perhaps in an unrealistic, but more beautiful way. The result is something closer to a coloured hachimaki, the white headband used today for roles of warriors, and worn on top of the mask.
  • The dance section, consisting of ranbyoshi and jo-no-mai (a peculiar combination) was particularly interesting. With ranbyoshi performed only by flute and ko-tsuzumi, and jo-no-mai performed by o-tsuzumi and ko-tsuzumi, without flute. I liked this second dance very much: I found that dancing without flute produces a very interesting, even more hypnotic effect. Maybe at this point of the performance I was getting used to the peculiar music, and started noticing how the two drummers communicated and challenged each other through slowing down and speeding up, despite the unusually sparseness of kakegoe vocal interjections. Then the shite jumped into the rather narrow bell, and changed costume, mask and wig.
  • Once the exorcism by the waki reached its climax, and the bell started to lift in order to reveal the serpentine monster hidden inside it, something strange happened. Little spheres, probably from juzu prayer beads, fell on the stage rolling here and there. This generated some confusion among the koken and in the jiutai, or so it seemed to me. After the performance Rebecca Teele and I were wondering whether one of the monk broke his juzu while rubbing it during the exorcism, or rather the juzu sphere did not come from inside the bell, perhaps as a sign of rage of the shite against the exorcism (?! – the pamphlet we were given does not provide information about this)…

There are many more differences between the Kurokawa Noh performances we saw yesterday and the mainstream Noh performed by the five schools. I would not want to go through everything I noticed, as it would take more than just one post. Perhaps most evident difference was kamae or basic standing position: in standard Kyogen and Noh schools, arms are bent inwards, hands on waist for Kyogen, hands in a fist-like position in Noh. The image of the upper body is that of a circle, containing physical tension that is then liberated in movement. However, in Kurokawa Noh arms are open, with the left hand index finger sticking out and pointing down. This position is much weaker than the standard kamae and it makes much sense to me that this basic stance evolved in a much more compact, tense while relaxed position in urban traditions. The Kurokawa Noh kamae reminds of dengaku or ennen, more rustic performance styles I have seen on other occasions. The pointed index finger can still be seen in Okina, when the god stands in the middle of the stage with arms raised pointing East and West.

Kurokawa Noh performance. Note the pointing finger

Udaka Michishige in Okina at Utsukushima-jinja. Note the pointing fingers

What I can say as a conclusion is that I enjoyed the performance: it wasn’t simply an ‘amateur performance’. I was expecting something ‘kagura-esque’, which it was not. Sure, the performance lacked the intensity and perfection of professional performance, and I am sure that it is a kind of event that needs to be enjoyed in its original context.. still, it was moving to discover another Noh style that seemed to come from another time. 参考になりました!


– Martzel, Gérard. La fête d’Ogi et le nô de Kurokawa. Paris: Publications Orientalistes de France, 1975.

– Grossman, Eike. ‘Under the burden of Noh: Community life in Kurokawa and ritual Noh performances’ in Noh Theatre Transversal. Stanca Scholz-Cionca and Christopher Balme eds. Munich: Iudicium, 2008.