Noh Masks Infused with the Spirit of Craftsmanship
TOKYO – When you say “it looks like a Noh mask” in Japanese, it means “expressionlessness.” On the contrary to what we say, Noh masks are quite expressive. With a slight shift in angle the facial expression on the mask will totally change. The masks are elaborately made. When they are placed on a desk, it may be difficult to see the different expressions. However, once a Noh actor wears it, the mask becomes a part of the actor and begins asserting itself with high emotions. Sometimes the emotions are more intense than those of humans.
This photo shows a Ko-omote mask, which represents the face of a young woman. When the mask looks down, her expression turns sad. When it looks up, she seems to be smiling. Female Noh masks are particularly vivid when actors wear them on stage.
This photo shows a mask called a Hannya. Although the face looks scary, it expresses a sad feeling. This is the expression of a young beautiful woman who was hopelessly and obsessively devoted to her love. Both female masks demonstrate agile and even subtle expressions. How are they possible? It is partly because of the craftsman’s techniques. It is also affected by the craftsman’s soul and obsession that are infused into their works.
These masks are made of wood. They show Noh actors’ spirituality; at the same time, they show the power of craftsmanship. It is said that the basic style of Noh masks came about in the 15th and 16th centuries. In the late 16th century, more creative masks were made. In the succeeding century, their manufacturing technique became further sophisticated. Under the Edo shogunal government, Noh performance became the state-designated art called Shikigaku. The Japanese samurai warriors of the time enjoyed Noh not only by watching, but also by performing themselves. Records show that Diamyo feudal lords competed with each other to perform Noh, and hired many Noh performers. They also spent a significant amount of money producing Noh masks and costumes instead of procuring or making weapons. That was a peaceful period and people enjoyed arts after the long-term turmoil of civil wars.
TOP: Omi-onna, A mask of an attractive beautiful woman. Omi-onna was named after a Noh piece of work.
MIDDLE: Ko-omote, A young woman’s face, which is said to be the prototype of the female mask. Ko-omote means “small face”, implying cuteness.
BOTTOM: Hannya, The face of woman who suffered from her single-minded love. Due to her jealousy, her face looks like a devil.
*All these masks are owned by HAKUSHOKAI
Photos by Kanae Suzuki, text by Motomi Takahashi