Just as the stories of many No plays—peopled with historic and legendary figures, gods, spirits, and ghosts—are drawn from the classical literature of the Heian (794–1185) or Kamakura (1185–1336) periods, the robes worn by the actors recall court costumes of the Nara (710–794) and Heian periods, which were made of sumptuous woven silks imported from China. Many Chinese symbols, motifs, and repeat patterns, along with Chinese weaving technology, were adopted by Japanese craftsmen during these same periods. Although heavy woven silks and formal patterns borrowed from China—such as the “seven jewels” design and karahana (Chinese flower) motif—gradually fell out of fashion for everyday wear, they continued to be used for No costumes, as a means of evoking the spirit of the distant past and the refinement of early court culture. The silks used for some robes continued to be imported from China, or closely modeled on Chinese examples, while Japanese weavers developed other imported weave structures, such as the weft-patterned silk called karaori (“Chinese weave”), into a sophisticated and distinctly Japanese artistic expression.
This exhibition highlights No robes from the 18th to early 20th centuries from the MFA’s collection, some of which have never before been exhibited. It explores how “Chinese” designs and weaves have been employed, adapted, and combined with “native” Japanese motifs in No costume over the centuries, along with the dramatic and symbolically meaningful role such robes would play in the context of a No performance.