The oldest dramatic form preserved in Japan is No theater, which attained its contemporary form at the fourteenth-century Ashikaga court. In the 1980s, there were five major No groups and a few notable regional troupes performing several hundred plays from a medieval repertoire for a popular audience, not just for an elite. A No play unfolds around the recitation and dancing of a principal and secondary figure, while a seated chorus chants a story, accentuated by solemn drum and flute music. The dramatic action is mimed in highly stylized gestures symbolizing intense emotions, which are also evoked by terse lyrical prose and dance. Standardized masks and brilliant costumes stand out starkly against the austere, empty stage with its symbolic pine tree backdrop.
No stories depict legendary or historical events of a tragic cast, infused with Buddhist ideas. The foreboding atmosphere is relieved by comic interludes (kyogen) played during the intermission. A few experimental plays have been developed by authors such as Mishima Yukio (1925-70), and in the 1980s a Christian No play was written by a Sophia University philosophy professor and daringly performed at the Vatican for Pope John Paul II. The National No Theater has revived popular interest in this ancient art form by supporting experimental No plays in the late 1980s.
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