picture No

crédit photo: Romain Jacquot

Nō and the practice of martial arts: 

two complementary pillars of the education of the Samurai.

This short text is based on an exchange with Masato Matsuura who was trained in swordsmanship and followed the teachings of TetsunojōKanze VIII as a  performer. He is currently living in Paris.

I submit here a rendering of his views on the close relation between the martial arts and the art of . These ideas were presented in the form of a demonstration to the members of the JAS on the occasion of the exhibition “Masked Warriors,” curated by Bas Verberk at Leiden’s SieboldHuis Museum in 2018. The demonstration aimed at illustrating the arguments developed in his study on the influence of  masks in the design of the menpō[1].


Around the midpoint of the 16th century, we suddenly see a growing interest in the ancient art of  theatre among the military class. The Buke not only enjoyed its performance but also started to learn and perform the roles. Famous swordsmen like Miyamoto Musashi or YagyūMunenori are known for having practiced . Eventually,  was to become the official ceremonial performance of the shogunatearound the beginning of the Edo period.


One might think that there is a fundamental difference between the two, since in martial arts one is confronted with deadly situations while on the other hand the  theatre is merely an art form. But the fact that samurai took an interest in it can be understood by the unwavering level of energy emanating from the actor during a performance.Besides the substantial amount of plays in the repertoire that actually deal with warrior prowess, the intensity displayed by the actor when expressing, for example, the despair of a forsaken old woman, may in fact not be so different from the determination a fighter needs to face his foe.


It is well documented that there were many exchanges between the Shinkageryū school of swordsmanship and the Komparu school of . One example of the result of this exchange is the typical sliding step of the  theatre (suriashi), which is said to have been directly introduced from sword techniques around that time.


began to flourish in 14th century Kyoto. The dominant influence of Zen at the time contributed to producing an aesthetic of bareness and poverty. The extravagantcostumes only heighten the scarcity of movements of the actor. In English, “” sounds like “No!”, and indeed the acting here is mainly about the absence of action. The actor can stand still while the audience perceives emotions emanating from his sole presence. This kind of irradiating steadiness is found in a very similar way in martial arts.


Shikisokuzeku[2]is a Buddhist concept that translates as: “Being and non-being are one and the same.” In order to manifest a strong presence on stage, the actor must “disappear” by erasing any trace of the self and any willful motion. He exposes himself to the audience without restrain, while being at the same time absent, empty, void. This allows him, when wearing the  mask, to become a medium for the spirit which is invited to speak through him. If the mind is not empty, thoughts will become an obstacle. This idea of being present and not-present at the same time is also found in martial arts and emptiness[3] allows a fighter to react appropriately to the movements of the opponent. If the thought of “doing something” crosses the mind, if the intention to strike is too strong, the move will end up wrong, unadapted to the situation.


The stillness of the actor is not passivity; the apparent immobility of the body is contrasted with a very intense inner activity. In the Shinkagerū sword school, this concept is called the West River,Seigosui[4]. This image contrasts the serene sight of a peaceful river with the tremendous rumbling actually taking place under its surface. In a similar way, the more inert the actor looks on the outside, the more intense his interiority needs to be.


The actor stands erect on the stage, creating a link between earth and heaven[5]. His body stretches between the grounding effect of gravity and an opposing force that hoists him from above. Whether in or martial arts, this neutral position is likewise referred to as Kamae, or guarding posture. Once a strong vertical tension is established in this seemingly inanimate body, a spiraling movement can develop around the axis, yin and yang start to interact, the actor/swordsman’s body will contract or expand according to centrifugal or centripetal forces and dance or swordplay is made possible.


Anybody who sees a Nō play is struck by the costumes. These costumes constrain body movements in a way which is similar to the wearing of armor. This very limitation has the benefit of concentrating energy and discouraging any superfluous motion. Whether wearing armor or a costume, the trunk will be maintained straight, the hips will be supported by several layers of belts, and the freedom allowed to the hip joint will encourage movement from the body’s center, reducing movements to the indispensable. This reduction of mobility structures the body and actually makes movements easier in the end.


As for the wearing of a mask, whether in  or as part of a suit of armor, the view is limited but this constraint brings up a different kind of perceptioncalled kan[6]. It has the effect of re-centering the subject on his own interiority, and at the same time it invites a different way of looking at things; seeing the whole, rather than being limited to the surface of objects.


The moment the actor brings the mask to his face, he disappears as an individual and becomes a vector for the spirit. In the same way, when bringing the Menpō to his face and tying his helmet, the samurai becomes something else. There was never anything trivial about donning one’s armor.


In Japanese belief, when gods manifest themselves to the human eye they consistently appear as old men. In , this code is respected in the same way. The fact of wearing an armor showing the wrinkled face of a fierce old man[7] would have been immediately perceived as the irruption of a supernatural entity, a human hosting the divinity within his own body and becoming one with it. The longevity of the presence of the Tehen no anaon kabuto design points to the same idea: the armor-clad samurai’s program was to impersonate a deity, or at least his envoy[8] on the battlefield.


Still today when is performed, the perceptible piety displayed by the public in welcoming the main character implies that we are not witnessing a simple performance, but that the entity is actually present on stage. This shows that the belief in the powerof the mask, and in the possibility of incarnating a ghost or a god, is not completely something belonging to the past.

Benoît de Spoelberch

[1]Bas Verberk, Masked warrior, LUP 2017.






[7]Ressei 烈勢