Mexican wrestlers adore them, surgeons don them, American footballers would get battered without them, ladies undergoing facials swear by them and they were conspicuously the headwear of choice for Jason Voorhees before heading out on a quiet evening’s rampage — time and again — in Friday the 13th. In different cultures and contexts around the world, masks serve multitudinous functions. And in Japan, the traditional associations with the shaping and wearing of these facial adjuncts are long and rich.
The earliest evidence of masks in Japan is in remains dating from the latter part of the Jomon period (about 10,000 to 300 BC). Though these masks and mask fragments are varied in character, some have a distinctly painted or tattooed appearance, and from ethnographic parallels with other parts of the northern Pacific, it has been suggested that they were probably used in initiation ceremonies.
Just as in ancient Greece, where masks were commonly employed in sacred ritual, ceremony, dance and the theater, so in later periods of history in Japan masks fulfilled the same functions. In contrast to the clay used to make Jomon masks, wood is the commonest material for fashioning Japanese masks, and the oldest preserved wooden forms are associated with the ancient masked dance-drama of gigaku, which flourished in the Nara period (710–794). The story has it that gigaku was introduced to Japan via a native of the Korean kingdom of Paekche, who learned the dances in Wu in southern China, but the fleshy, large-featured masks point more to origins closer to Persia. Among the treasures preserved in the great ancient storehouse of the Shosoin in Nara is a gigaku mask believed to have been used in the dedication ceremonies for the nearby Buddhist temple of Todai-ji in 752. This and other gigaku masks of the time already show sophisticated artisanal techniques, often having been carved from paulownia wood, lacquered, then colored on a kaolin base and given an oil finish.
Around the time when gigaku made its way to Japan, various other foreign dances arrived in the country from other parts of Asia, and in the ninth century these were systematized into the form of masked court dance known as bugaku. Though bugaku masks had remote continental prototypes, during the Heian period (794–1185) they became stylized to suit Japanese sensibilities. Each mask was created to convey a particular emotion or attitude, ranging from the smiling and joyful to the wildly grotesque, with the latter types typically employing such devices as movable eyes and chins to enhance their bizarre character.
As the Shosoin example indicates, masks have long had spiritual associations, and that is certainly evident today in the use of masks in festivals (matsuri), which typically have religious underpinnings and are associated with Shinto shrines. Dance plays about Shinto myth (kagura) employ masks, masks of women or old men sometimes feature in rice-planting rites, while in festivals comic dancers donning the male hyottoko mask, with pouting mouth and one eye smaller than the other, are a humorous delight.
But the type of Japanese mask most familiar overseas is that associated with noh. Recognized in 2001 by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage, noh is a highly sophisticated, pared-down form of musical dance-drama using just a handful of performers, who employ understated, restrained gestures on a compact stage with sparse props and sets. More so than Western opera, noh is a composite art form that embraces literature, theater, music and aesthetics, each of these being an equally contributing part and indivisible from the rest.
In the context of noh, the wooden mask assumes critical importance, and though its features are immovable, when worn by the actor the mask takes on a living immediacy as the eyes are saddened or brightened by the play of shadows caused by slight shifts of the head. “Noh masks are more than simply a stage prop in the form of disguise,” notes Michishige Udaka, a leading noh actor and the only actor who also makes the masks himself. “Rather they effect a kind of sorcery, nullifying the actor’s very identity for the duration of the play and replacing it with that of the story’s character.”
David Capel is a journalist living in Tokyo.