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Noh Masks from Japan

The World of Noh Masks

In the world of practically used art objects Noh masks stand on their own. The best masks are pieces created through great skill and artistry.

Whilst old masks can command very high prices the newer ones are accessible for a high price but one that to my mind reflects their true value.

These masks are created for theatrical productions. Noh Theatre can be traced back to two great actors in the 14th and 15th century, Kan'ami (1333 - 84) and his son Zeami (1363 - 1443).

They took the form from the Dengaku religious plays with influences from China and Buddhist liturgy plus Bugaku dances. From these roots the two actors formalised the drama that is performed today.

The performances were austere, based very strongly upon the Zen Buddhist principles of , restraint, understatement, economy of movement and frugality of expression.

As the turmoil's of Japan rule unfolded the theatre was appropriated by the Shogun in 1603 and set down and maintained without variation from 1647 by the order of Tokugawa Iemitsu.

As this was the formal theatre of the Shogunate it was seldom seen by ordinary people. When the Shogun fell in 1867 Noh Theatre went into decline but was kept alive through the efforts of Umewaka Minoru. After the Second World War the traditions were revived and performances were made open to the public.

A Noh actor when preparing for the performance will sit in quiet meditation and study the mask. Being almost expressionless the mask causes the actor to express the character through movement and the voice.

As the Noh actor absorbs his understanding of the mask the role and movement become established in his mind. A similar process can be found in the work of the Method School of acting where the actor absorbs the character the she is playing. In tandem with the mask the performance is assisted by music.

In Japanese the quality that the actor attempts to reach is known as Yugen. This is a quality difficult to express but it includes grace, darkness and mystery. The Buddhist poet Shotetsu described it as lying in the mind and suggesting a vein of cloud over the moon or the mists of autumn over on the mountain side.

There are around eighty different Noh masks used in performances. The plays can be divided into six categories.

Japanese Mask,Modern Bugaku,Noh Mask,

Standing on its own is the oldest drama Okina. Dating back to the tenth century it is only performed on special occasions. It is sometimes called first play. In format it consist of dances offering prayer for peace, fertility and longevity.

The other five are:

Kami Noh

Shura Noh

Kazura Noh

Zatsu Noh

Kiri or Kichiku Noh

Each group of dramas having a different range of characters and settings.

A future related dramatic style is the Kyogen which is lighter in content. The Kyogen performances often take place between the acts of the more dramatic and tragic Noh.

The masks themselves are carved from a single piece of Japanese Cypress wood. The thickness of the mask is determined by alternately carving the interior and front of the mask.

The craftsman will then coat the mask with a mixture of gesso and glue sanding down the layers to achieve the final form. The finished surface is painted with the set colours and format for the character. Other detail is added with guilding and finer detail with pen and ink.

As with many other types of masking the Noh mask is worn with an elaborate costume. The actor dons the costume and then after contemplating the mask and entering the part the mask is place on the face and tied in place. Finally the wig is added to complete the transformation as the mask takes over the actors personality as he enters the stage.

A place I have visited for a look at these masks is nohmask.com There are nearly 80 different and distinct characters depicted by the masks Here they have traditonal masks at prices that are very reasonable, between $299 and $600 for high quality masks. They are not carved by traditional masters but they are excellent masks in the traditional styles.

For any collector who cannot run to the outlay of a Noh theatre mask then this is a place to consider Noh Masks.

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