Noh mask

The forms of the mask in Asia are part of the codified universe of dramatic art. The mask is most often worn on stage, giving life to the numerous characters of Japanese Noh.

This constancy of the formal repertoire also corresponds to the diffusion of the cultural model of the epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, which inspired most of the plays. The purifying function of the mask is often counterbalanced by interludes that demonstrate the need to combine the comic and the tragic.

Noh is considered the most accomplished form of Japanese theater. This dramatic art derives from older traditions of religious dances and pantomimes performed in temples and revisited in the XIVᵉ century by Kan'ami and his son Zeami. These 2 authors of Noh dramas also codified the wearing of masks and costumes.

The art of the carved mask enjoyed great influence during the Edo period of the XVIᵉ - XIXᵉ centuries: several workshops specialized in its production and the learning of Noh even entered the education of the elite.

What are the differents Japanese Noh Masks?

Noh theater masks are divided into five categories:

  • Japanese spirits mask,
  • Japanese men,
  • Japanese women,
  • Japanese demons
  • and Japanese old men.

Those used today are copies of ancient masterpieces. These original Noh masks have been kept in Noh houses for generations. Carved from cypress wood (hinoki) and painted, they constitute the 60 basic masks. In total, there are 250 masks.

In Noh, only the main actors wear lacquered wooden masks whose features and expressions define the character and synthesize the atmosphere of a play. The hieratic slowness of the movements associated with the sumptuousness of very elaborate costumes allows the actor to communicate various emotions under the unchanged aspect of the face.

The head movements of the actor, pre-established by a code and conventions, express the diversity of the states of mind. These attitudes are enhanced by the play of shadows and light, which allows to communicate a fleeting emotion and to enhance the crucial moment of the action.

The distinctive features of the masks associated with the softness of the volumes and colors thus participate in a search for balance. A realism nuanced with symbolism thus contributes to the expressionism which constitutes the essence of the Noh mask.

Chûjô mask

Light wood painted in light bistre. Face in regular oval, smooth, with almost effaced features. The nose is fleshy, with swollen and wide nostrils; the mouth is open, thin, with lips highlighted with red, showing an upper row of black teeth.

A mask called Chûjô, it represents a young man of the aristocracy of the classical Heian period (VIIIᵉ - XIIᵉ centuries). He can be recognized by his raised, slightly furrowed eyebrows, which express a deep sadness. This affected melancholy is often used to embody the drama of Prince Genji in the Tale of Genji (a famous Japanese tale), or that of a young warrior who appears to his widow in a dream and tells her of his drowning, at the time of the fall of the Heike clan.

Doji mask

Oval-shaped mask representing a young man with his mouth and eyes slightly open. Mouth painted in red. Thin black lines indicate the hair, which covers a large part of the forehead. 2 holes at the level of the temples allowed to pass a cord to maintain the mask on the face of the actor. 5 other holes at the level of the eyes, the nostrils and the mouth.

This Doji mask is the archetype of the Noh theater mask by the milky whiteness of the face, the half closed eyes and the blackened teeth characteristic of the aristocracy. It represents a young man whose gaze, the fine black hair that bangs the shape of the forehead and the discreet dimples underline his youth.

Sankôjô mask

Emaciated old man's face, all wrinkled: deep furrows and more covering on the cheeks, marking the middle of the forehead. Smiling mouth with turned-in lips, underlined with red, framed by a moustache tapering along the corners of the mouth; long and thin goatee made of horsehair, split, running on one side under the lower lip and on the other side under the chin. Forehead framed by 2 thin and long locks of hair, which start from the temples and are folded and fixed in their middle. Ears in low relief, with very distended lower lobes.

Sankôjô, with his emaciated face, animated by an expression that is both smiling and bitter, belongs to the category of masks of malicious old men, the jômen. Among the masks of the patriarchs, he embodies the ghost of the valiant warriors who fell in battle. They manifest themselves to the living in the form of an old fisherman or villager.

The hair that is brought back to the top of the skull in two distinct lobes and the deep wrinkles that crisscross the forehead are characteristic of the sankôjô. The name of the mask recalls that of Sankôbô (c. 1532), a Buddhist monk who was the first sculptor specialized in this type of mask.

Yase-Otoko mask

Mask representing a man with an emaciated face and a gray complexion. Bare forehead framed by strands of hair painted in black on the temples. Superciliary arches in line with the nose.

They are surmounted by arched eyebrows painted in black. Diamond-shaped eyes, sunken in the orbits and pierced with 2 holes. 2 holes at the level of the temples allow to pass a link to maintain the mask on the face of the actor. Open mouth surmounted by a mustache painted in black. A row of blackened teeth is visible. The lips are painted red. A beard and a small goatee are painted in black.

Yase-otoko, with its dull face and prominent cheekbones, sublimates the spirit of the dead man who is suffering the torments of hell because of his past transgressions. The yase-otoko mask falls into the category of spirits.

Its angular features reinforce the ghostly character of the mask, expressing anguish and suggesting the great distress of the character. Ghost masks are sometimes referred to as "vengeful spirit" masks and express the anger, jealousy or hatred that overwhelms the creature depicted.

Okina mask

This mask with deep wrinkles, laughing eyes and articulated jaw represents one of the oldest Noh characters, Okina. This character materializes the incarnation of a god in the body of an old man, Hakushiki-jô; this elderly, smiling god symbolizes peace and always plays the leading role in Okina plays.

As early as the XIIᵉ century, the old man's dance guaranteed human longevity and abundant harvests. The origin of okina masks can be traced back to the performances of the sarugaku and dengaku troupes, before the appearance of noh. They were also used in prayers and ritual celebrations. The oldest okina masks are sacred objects kept in temples.

Usobuki mask

Kyogen mask intervene as a burlesque interlude alternating with the noh sessions. The contrast between the satirical farces of the kyogen and the poetic dramas of the noh can be found in the physiognomy of the masks. Thus the usobuki mask can be recognized by its round, wide-set eyes.

The kyogen stages anonymous characters in everyday situations with masks of a pronounced realism with exaggerated expressions and intended to provoke the hilarity of the spectators. Disfigured by the grimace of his mouth, protruding which indicates that he is whistling, Usobuki embodies the spirit of mosquitoes and mushrooms.
The masks of

Kyogen are less numerous than in Noh, there are 50 types for a repertoire of 250 pieces. They differ from Noh masks by the more or less fixed expressions of the characters which do not lend themselves to the subtle variations of emotions. These masks translate the problems of the human condition with amusing, absurd and exaggerated expressions.

Obeshimi mask

Brown and black lacquered wood. Golden lacquer on the eyes, red on the external corner of the eyes. The convex outer face, modeled with very pronounced reliefs; concave inner face, with holes for the nose and the eyes.

Face with a contracted piriform tendency, of an angry demon: long tight mouth, hermetically closed, hollowing out the cheeks; tense, rising chin; dilated nose with turned-up nostrils, cheeks turned back towards the eyes, large, bulging, and close-set, sheltered under thick, frowning black eyebrows; narrow and smooth forehead.

The oni mask can be recognized by the very pronounced relief of their large face and the golden color of their bulging eyes. These masks are of 2 types, those with an open mouth and those whose lips remain tightly closed like the ôbeshimi. Although it is only used in 5 pieces of Noh, Obeshimi sometimes embodies Dairokuten, one of the 10 kings of the underworld, but it most often represents one of the evilest spirits that boast of threatening the human race.

The mask of the ôbeshimi is an adaptation, for the Noh theater, of a form existing for an older dramatic art, the sarugaku. Of all the Noh masks, it is the one whose features have been the most exaggerated in order to express the harsh brutality of supernatural beings.