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The Mask

Ryugyoku, Kyogen Mask, early 19th c., wood, bequest of Mr. L.B. Gutman, New York

The Mask


February 24th - April 9th, 2007 

Curator: Dr. Ilana Singer


Masks are present in many cultures. Perhaps they are expressions of man's desire to escape his human existence. The mask is a means of changing shape - a complete entity through which an actor can disguise his true self. Throughout the history of Japan, masks have been used for religious ceremonies and other performances, representing humans, deities, demons, ghosts or fabulous creatures according to the dramas in which they appear. Japanese masks, as of the Jomon era (10,500-300 BCE), were made of clay or cloth. We cannot confirm their purpose, but it seems that they were used for shamanistic rituals. It is also thought that they were used to cover the face of the dead, as amulets to ward off evil spirits, or as pacifying offerings against disease.


The best-known Japanese masks are those worn in dances, theatre, festivals, and Shinto and Buddhist ceremonies. Many masks reached Japan from Asia with Buddhism, and were made of various materials, including clay, dry lacquer, cloth, paper, and wood. Most of them are carved from wood and embellished or coated with lacquer. Some have a layer of kaolin beneath the paint. Methods of making masks have changed very little over the past 500 years.


The oldest masks that are still extant in Japan are the Gigaku. Gigaku is a dance-drama brought to Japan, according to tradition, by a man named Mimashi, at the beginning of the 7th century. Mimashi learned Gigaku dancing in China, and it flourished in Japan from the Nara era (710-794) until Edo (1603-1868), when it disappeared. Performances included mime and processions accompanied by music on the flute, tsutsumi drums and cymbals. Gigaku masks made of camphor wood have been preserved in the Shosoin Treasury and the Todaiji Temple at Nara. These masks cover the head and ears, whereas later masks only cover the face.


There are fourteen types of Gigaku mask, usually made of pawlonia wood, though there are also some created by the dry lacquer technique. Most of them have large noses or snouts, and hair glued on in places. Since the dances in which they are worn are very dramatic, their expressions are particularly fierce. Gigaku masks are also carved into lions' heads, a bird-like creature with a beak, demons, or supernatural beings. There are obvious influences in their design from India, China, and south-east Asia  


Gagaku is the traditional music of the Japanese court, developed in the Heian era (794-1185). It also accompanies Bugaku, masked dancing. Gagaku is a combination of Togaku, that came from China during the Tang period; Komagaku from Korea; and original Japanese music. A Gagaku orchestra consists of the hichiriki - a kind of oboe made of two reeds, various flutes, the sho - a wind instrument also made of reeds, hanging drums, and a shoko - a small brass gong.


Bugaku dancing, prevalent from the 9th century until the Kamakura era (1185-1333) is performed on a raised platform or in a defined area, and is accompanied by very slow music.


The first Bugaku masks, from the beginning of the Heian era, were very realistic, but by the end of the Kamakura era they had become extremely stylized, and the popularity of Bugaku declined. Bugaku masks vary in size, and are usually made of cypress wood, though some are made of dry lacquer. Unlike the Gigaku mask, they have no ears, and only cover the face. The style of carving is reminiscent of Buddhist sculpture and, indeed, some Bugaku masks are signed by Buddhist sculptors. Because Bugaku is a dance (not a drama) the expressions of the masks are less dramatic.


Gyodo masks were generally worn for outdoor Buddhist processions, especially during the consecration of a new temple. They represent Buddhist notables, protective deities, dragon-gods and demons, and are also worn during purification rituals. Those representing supernatural or godly beings are larger, masking the entire face. Most of the Gyodo masks preserved in Japan are from the end of the Heian era and the Muromachi period (1392-1568).


The Noh and Kyogen theatrical masks are the best known. Noh dramas developed in Japan from Sarugaku and Dengaku performances and other folk rituals linked to agriculture. Sarugaku, which originated in China, included acrobatic displays, juggling, pantomime and conjuring, as well as dances and rituals that originated in various temples. In the 11th century, comic elements were added to these performances, and the acrobatics were removed from the repertoire. At the end of the 13th century, Sarugaku actors' guilds were formed, and these became the basis of the Noh Theatre. In the Muromachi era, the dramatic plays became Noh dramas, the comic ones became Kyogen.


It can be assumed that development of the Noh and Kyogen masks was also connected to Sarugaku, as was the Okinami tradition, which is still part of the Noh repertoire, and known as Shikisaban. The four masks worn in Okinami originated in the Gigaku and Bukagu. Three of these masks have a hinged lower jaw connected to the upper section by a silk cord, namely the Okino (white) and the Sanbaso (black) masks, which look alike; and the Chichinojo. Nowadays the Okino and Sanbaso predominate. The others have gone out of use. Although these early masks are not, technically, Noh masks, they are still considered as the origin of the genre.


There are more than 200 types of Noh mask. A typical Noh mask is carved from hinoki wood (the Japanese cypress), and is smaller and usually flatter than the face. The masks are intended to express mood, and their expression changes according to how the light falls on them, and how the actors move their heads. Only the principle actor in a drama wears a mask, and he only does so when portraying someone who, according to the drama, is no longer alive. Noh masks represent deities, demons, ghosts, men and women, young and old. In many Noh plays, the leading actor changes his mask during a performance, the new mask expressing the true nature of the character.


The Hannya is such a mask, a representation of a vengeful and jealous woman who turns into a demon. She has horns and protruding fangs, and her expression is full of anger and hatred. Even the colour of the mask is indicative of her demonic fury. The redder the mask, the more demonic the character. Shikami are also demon masks with pronounced eyebrows, sharp fangs, and a gaping, snarling mouth.


Ko-omote (small face) is a mask of a young woman, charming and serene. It expresses the innocence of youth, and accords with the concepts of beauty in the Heian era - shaved eyebrows, with artificial ones painted higher up on the forehead, and blackened teeth. Since all Kabuki actors are male, female masks are very necessary. Shakumi and Fukai masks depict older women, with deep-set eyes that are also indicative of age. Square eyes represent those of a young maiden, and narrowed eyes again indicate an older woman. The Uba is an old woman's mask, with grey hair and wrinkles that signify much experience in life.


The painted hair on the masks is also an indication of status. For example, if hair is painted on the temples of an Otoko mask of a young man, this indicates that he is not a nobleman, though he may be a warrior.  Male masks are also designed to indicate age. Deep-set eyes and deep lines around eyes and mouth tell us that this is an older man. The Chujo mask represents a nobleman of the Heian

era - fair skin, shaved eyebrows, artificial ones painted higher on the forehead, and blackened teeth are all characteristic of the aristocracy of this period.


Kyogen sketches, funny or absurd, are presented as comic interludes in the Noh plays. Usobuki is one of the masks used in these sketches. The word has several meanings - innocent expression, whistle, gasp. The mask has angry, protruding eyes, a shrunken mouth, an upturned moustache. An actor wearing it may be impersonating a human being, an animal spirit, or an insect such as a mosquito or cicada. Kyogen masks represent mischievous natures. They either have happy expressions or distorted features such as staring eyes and large mouths. Carving Noh and Kyogen masks is a family craft, and the best-known family is the Deme, already renowned in the Edo period. The craftsmen of this family also created miniature netsuke masks.


The netsuke was originally a carved and decorated clothing accessory connected by a cord to various articles called sagemono (hanging items), including tobacco pouches, inro - containers for personal seals, medicaments, purses, etc. The mask is apparently the oldest model for creating netsuke, though few collectors have shown much interest in collecting netsuke masks. Generally, it is easier to identify the character of a mask on the stage rather than from these little artifacts. Apart from anything else, the actor's costume and accessories assist identification, as does the size of a mask covering all or part of his face. The carver determines the size of a netsuke mask according to his client - adult, child, sumo wrestler, etc., and whether it is to be worn with the sagemono.


To summarize: Bugaku is the theatrical mask that covers chin and ears. The Gyudo covers the entire head and neck. The small, flat Noh mask covers only about two-thirds of the face. These characteristics are modified in the netsuke masks. The Noh mask, for example, becomes deeper, more recessed to make room for the insertion of a small loop at the back that holds the cord joined, at the other end, to a container.


It takes about 40 days to create a mask, which the carver also planes and paints. The colours of the theatrical masks are traditional, and cannot be changed. Netsuke masks, as a rule, are not painted by the artist.                       

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