Noh mask

There are several forms of theatre in Japanese culture (Kabuki, Kyogen, Shimpa or Noh). One of these, the Noh theatre is similar to the place Shakespearian drama has in the West in that the dramas and their stories are well known. The Noh stories were composed several hundred years ago in the archaic language of that time. The dramas were performed only by male actors until recently.

Surviving because of the allegorical illumination they cast on the timeless concerns of the human condition, the drama presents customs, dress, habits, and language of the past and are based on older myths and popular legends. Noh theatre has a repetoire of about 240 pieces. Masks are worn by many of the actors

Brief History of the Noh theatre

In Japan masks belong to a highly developed theatrical tradition. Its purpose used to be strictly religious but this has long since changed. Of all the Japanese masks the Noh mask is said to be the most artistic one. The origins of Noh theatre go back to the thirteenth century. At that time a very popular performance was ‘Dengaku no Noh’ which translates as ‘Field-music Performance’ and it had its root in rustic acrobatic and juggling exhibitions. By the fourteenth century, however, Noh had become a kind of opera in which the performers recited while sitting next to each other and then danced. As the fourteenth century went on, another type of Noh, Sarugaku, which used a lot of buffoonery, developed into a serious dramatic performance.

In 1647 the shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu (the Shogun was the Japanese military ruler) ordered that no variations were allowed in Noh performance. At that time stage directions were written down, costumes and masks were clearly defined and actors were allocated fixed positions on stage.

Masks and accessories in Noh theatre

Elaborate costumes are a very important part of creating a striking performance. If a play begins rather slowly it is likely that the audience will get bored, therefore the Noh actors choose bright and colourful costumes. Costumes can also help to communicate a special context, so a broad-brimmed hat made of bamboo would suggest country life. These expensive costumes were often gifts to a famous actor by his admirers, something that still happens today.

Stage props on the other hand were hardly needed at all. More important than the costume was the Noh mask. Masks are only worn by the main character, his mask would stylise the person it represents and show them in a truer light than reality could do by depicting only the absolutely essential traits of character. There are five categories of Noh masks: gods, demons, men, women and the elderly.

The masks used in Noh theatre generally show a neutral expression so it is up to the skill of the actor to bring the mask to life through his acting. The parts are all acted by men, so the task of performing as a young woman is one of the most challenging for any actor. The masks are comparatively small and they only cover the front of the face having only small holes for eyes, nostrils and mouth.

Gregory Irvine describes the dressing of an actor in his book as follows: “After donning his sumptuous costume the actor seats himself before a mirror and studies the mask, becoming one with the character he is about to perform. The mask is then tied onto his head, any wig or necessary headgear is put on and he stands before a full-length mirror letting the mask take over his own personality before he is led to the stage.”

Noh masks have to be very light because they are worn throughout a performance that lasts for several hours. They are carved from one piece of cypress wood. After the masks has been carved to the desired thickness, holes for eyes, nose and mouth have been cut, it is then coated with layers of gesso mixed with glue. This coating is then sanded down, giving the mask its final shape. Finally it is painted in the colours prescribed for the particular character and some parts of it might be gilded. Some of the masks’ eyes are inlaid with metal leaving a tiny hole. The hair and the outlines of the eyes are traced with black ink.