The traditional form of Japanese musical drama, Nō theatre, was a pastime enjoyed by the samurai. This highly refined type of theatre evolved out of medieval performance traditions and contain many allusions to classical literature. Nō is also influenced by Buddhist philosophy and shamanistic rituals. It is performed on a bare stage and primarily consists of the maincharacter (shite), asupporting actor (waki), a small troupe of musicians and a chorus.

The atmosphere of the performances is ethereal, and this sense of other worldliness isheightened by the use of masks to represent a range of human and supernatural beings. The Nō mask of the character Washibana akujo portrays an 'eagle-nosed fierce old man'. Masks are prized as heirlooms passed down through generations of actors. The Nō mask of Tōgō, dated around 1700, carries an inscription on the back of the mask written in gold lacquer that reads Hōshō-dayu (master Hōshō). It belonged to the actor Norishige, a master of the Hōshō school of Nō Theatre. Tōgō initially represented another variety of wrathful god-likecharacters and later was also used in the role of revengeful ghosts.

Nō costumes worn by performers are known as kosode or karaori, which refers to the style of Nō costume and the fabric that first appeared in Japan in the 16th century. These costumes are bold and colourful with elaborate embroidery.

  • costume with phoenix and cloud motif was intended for women's and children's roles and epitomises the taste of the Edo period. The design's balance contrasts with the asymmetrical patterns in dyed kosode robes intended for daily wear. The costume is decorated wth complementary symbols in auspicious Chinese phoenixes and clouds.
  • Nō costume, with autumn grasses design is a karaori and consists of intricate autumn grasses, blush cover and chrysanthemum. The simple fence suggests the episode 'The shrine of the field' (Nonomiya) from chapter 10, Sakaki (or 'The green branch') in the Tale of Genji.
  • Nō costume, with fishing net design is made in a technique known as nuihaku, which combines embroidery with gold leaf glued onto the fabric. This costume features the motif of drying fish nets, implying a seaside scene, with clouds and background pattern of gold waves. The dominant red colour scheme of the fabric identifies this robe as for use in a young woman's or royal prince's role.

Investigate different styles of Nō costumes kosode and karaori. Compare these designs to other well known and elaborate costumes and stage productions. How important is the use of costume to tell a story?

Tip: Look at Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dream Coat.

Design your own Nō costume based on a popular children's story. Select a character in the story who will perform in your costume. Consider what type of character they are and where the story is set. Decorate your costume using bright colours and bold patterns to capture the essence of your character.

Nō theatre performers often wear elaborate costumes including masks with exaggerated expressions of love, anger or grief. Photograph yourself expressing an exaggerated emotion. Create a papier-mâché based on your photograph. Use your mask to perform a short fictional story.

Tip: watch the video below for an introduction into Nō Theatre. What characteristics of this style of performance are different or similar to performances you have seen before?