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The Noh masks: One of the oldest and most artistic Japanese traditional masks

David Goran

The Noh theater is a traditional Japanese theatrical form and one of the oldest extant dramatic forms in the world. It is a musical drama that has been performed since the 14th century. Developed by Kan’ami and his son Zeami, it is the oldest type of theater still regularly performed today.

Noh performance. Image by - Wikipedia, Public Domain

Noh performance. Image by: Wikipedia/Public Domain

 

In Japan masks belong to a highly developed theatrical tradition. Image by -ichidoru.Flickr. CC BY 2.0

In Japan, masks belong to a highly developed theatrical tradition. Image by: Ichi doru/Flickr/CC-BY 2.0

The earliest Noh masks were carved in the Kamakura period (1192-1333). They are very realistic, taking their shape from the pictures and statues of Buddha and belong to a highly developed theatrical tradition. Because the effect was considered to be an important ingredient in the Noh drama, the masks were used to convey the mood and character of the part played by the performer. Its purpose used to be strictly religious, but this had long since changed.

Noh mask in Nagoya Castle. Image by- Michael Zimmer.Flickr. CC BY-SA 2.0

Noh masks in Nagoya Castle. Image by: Michael Zimmer/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

There are approximately 450 different masks mostly based on sixty types, all of which have distinctive names. The masks are carved from blocks of Japanese cypress, and painted with natural pigments on a neutral base of glue and crunched seashell. Some of the masks eyes are inlaid with metal leaving a tiny hole, and the hair and the outlines of the eyes are traced with black ink.

Costumes and masks were clearly defined and actors were allocated fixed positions on stage. Images by - sigurs0.Flickr. CC BY2.0, The Children's Museum of Indianapoilis.CC BY-SA 3.0

Costumes and masks were clearly defined and actors were allocated fixed positions on stage. Images by: sigurs0/Flickr/CC BY2.0, The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis/CC BY-SA 3.0

There are five categories of Noh masks: gods, demons, men, women and the elderly. Some of the masks are frequently used in many different plays, while some are more specific and may only be used in one or two plays.

These female masks were designed to portray the character of the protagonist of the Noh play. Image by - ichidoru.Flickr. CC BY 2.0

These female masks were designed to portray the character of the protagonist of the Noh play. Image by: ichidoru/Flickr/CC-BY 2.0

 

The most ancient mask is supposedly kept as a hidden treasure by the oldest school, the Konparu. Image by- sprkig.Flickr. CC BY 2.0

The most ancient mask is supposedly kept as a hidden treasure by the oldest school, the Konparu. Image by: sprkig/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Only the shite, the main actor, wears a mask in most plays, even though the tsure (The shite’s companion) may also wear a mask in some plays to represent female characters. In one female mask, one can see the feeling of joy, anger, grief, and happiness. One of the most well-known female demon masks is the horned Noh mask of Hannaya, an angry spirit.

The female demon mask. Image by- ichidoru.Flickr. CC BY 2.0

The female demon mask. Image by: ichidoru/Flickr/CC-BY 2.0

 

A No (traditional abstract japanese theatre) mask portraying a hannya (female demon). Image by- Tommaso Meli.Flickr. CC BY 2.0

A No (traditional abstract Japanese theater) mask portraying a hannya (female demon). Image by: Tommaso Meli/Flickr/CC-BY 2.0

There is a curious technique used in this performances which involves slightly tilting the mask up or down. Tilting upwards is called terasu (the mask is smiling) and tilting downwards is called kumorasu (the mask is crying). Basically, by using minute movements, the performer can express a full range of emotions.

This mask expresses different moods. Image by - Wmpearl, Public Domain

This mask expresses different moods. Image by: Wikipedia/Public Domain

Noh performance combines a variety of elements into a stylistic whole, with each particular element the product of generations of refinement according to Buddhist, Shinto, and Noh principles.