Every culture in the world has its own theater. In Japan one of the most ancient forms of theater is Noh. The Noh theater found its form in the fourteenth century and continues in much the same form, with many of the same plays, in present day Japan. A Noh play portrays one all-encompassing emotion dominating the main character, the shite. Whether jealousy, rage, or sorrow, all music, gesture, dance, and recitation are used to build the emotion to its final climax at the close of the play. Often the plays depict the return of a historical personage, in spirit – or “ghostly” – form, to the site of a significant event in his or her life.
A warrior might return to the battle field, or young woman to the scene of a love affair. According to Buddhism of the fourteenth century, a person could not find spiritual release even after death if he still possessed a strong emotion or desire. To exorcise this emotion, the warrior might appear in his armor and recreate the battle in a dance. The dance would reveal his humiliation at suffering defeat. Noh plays are extremely intense. In order to express something so abstract as an emotion, words are often inadequate. As the play progresses, then, dance and poetry are used to express the tortured heart.
Other elements which contribute to an intensification of the mood are the bare simplicity of the stage which allows no distraction from the main character, and the gorgeous costumes of the main character himself. The stylized movements also help to focus the energy on the emotion rather than on the individual personalities. In Noh as in classical ballet, every movement is choreographed and often symbolic. There is no individual interpretation. Masks are used in many different cultures. In Japan, Noh masks are used for theatre and dance performances.
Each mask represents a certain person, hero, devil, ghost, or legendary animal, depending on what the character is in the performance. As Noh is an art form that utilizes masks, there is a great variety of them. There were originally about 60 basic types of noh masks, but today there are well over 200 different kinds in use. Noh performers feel that the noh mask has a certain power inherent in it which makes it much more spiritual than a prop used to change ones appearance. Taking into account the status of a certain noh, the noh performer will carefully choose a noh mask, known also as a noh-men or omote.
In most cases, the exact mask is not predetermined, but depending on which noh is being done, the shite has a variety to choose from. In the end, it is up to the shite to make the final determination as to which mask is chosen. Exactly when the noh mask came into being is not entirely clear however it is believed that masks, and their names still used today, were developed from the mid to latter part of the Muromachi period (1392-1573). Previous to that time, the mask conventions were not entirely set and masks themselves had stronger religious connotations.
It was during the Muromachi period that the religious significance of the masks began to wane and they took on more human characteristics. It is thought that as performers started to think more about the use of yugen (mysterious beauty) and profundity, they felt they needed to hide the unattractive aspects of their own faces and concentrate on making the beauty of noh stronger. Between the end of the Muromachi period and the modern age the art of making noh masks was established as a hereditary art with a long lineage.
Two examples are the Deme family from Echizen (present day Fukui prefecture) and the Iseki family from Ohmi (present day Shiga prefecture). Following the establishment of noh mask making families, the stylization of noh masks significantly advanced. Even today there are many independent mask makers. While some nohgaku performers still make their own masks, the performance world and the mask-making world are essentially independent of each other. As it is often difficult to tell the actual feelings expressed in a noh mask, it is said to be made with a “neutral” expression.
The mask carver tries to instill a variety of emotions in the mask. It is up to the performer to imbue the mask with emotion. One of the techniques used in this task is to slightly tilt the mask up or down. With terasu (tilting upwards) the mask appears to be slightly smiling or laughing and the expression lightens somewhat. While kumorasu (tilting downwards), produces a slight frown and can express sadness or crying. Basically, by using minute movements, the performer is able to express very fully. Noh masks, like costumes and props, are extremely valuable heirlooms and handed down from generation to generation.
After having the costume put on, the shite then goes to the kagami no ma (mirror room) where in front of a mirror, the shite faces the mask. In putting the mask on, the word kaburu (putting on clothing) is not used. Instead the word kakeru (to hang) or tsukeru (to attach) is used. In this way, it is implying that the performer is “becoming” the mask, and its emotions, in order to better express the characters feelings. In reality, a noh mask does not entirely cover a noh performer’s face when it is being worn. In fact, it is thought best if some part of the chin and/or jowls show.
Also, as the eye holes of the mask are very small, the field of vision of the performer is very limited when wearing the mask. Consequently the simple design of the stage and the use of hashira (pillars) assists in helping the performer know their location during a performance. Not all the main performers on stage wear masks in noh. Usually the shite and the tsure wear masks and occasionally there are instances where the ai will as well. The waki as a rule, playing a character who is living in the present, does not wear a mask. This is called hitamen or a “direct mask. However, even without wearing a mask, the performer is meant to “make their face a mask. ” The performer must inject power and emotion into their performance while not using their face to express. In some genzai noh the shite or tsure do not wear masks. Noh performances reflect upon the daily life and times of the Japanese. An extremely stylized art form which dates back to the feudal period, the masks used convey the mood and character of the part played by the performer. Thus, each mask is a manifestation of elegant simplicity and rustic tranquility.