Japan Kimono
The Art of Kimono
noh mask history

Among japanese masks, Noh and kyogen masks are the ones with which we are most familiar. Noh dramas evolved from the traditions of sarugaku (sangaku), dengaku, and other folk agricultural rituals. Sarugaku originally was a repertoir of performance arts from China, which included acrobatics, juggling, miming and conjuring. These intermingled with dances and rituals at shrines and temples.
Eventually the dance and performance art of dengaku, which was associated with agricultural traditions, also merged into sarugaku.
By the 11th century, comedic sketches were incorporated into the set of performances and the acrobatics were phased out the repertory. As the performance art evolved, music arrangements, words and gestures began to be standardized.
By the end of the 13th century, sarugaku guilds began to be established, which would form the basis of the noh tradition.

By the Muromachi period, the dramatic plays became noh plays, and the comedic plays became the comic interludes known as kyogen. Noh and kyogen became very popular through the patronage of Kan'ami and Zeami (the leading proponents of noh at that time) by the Ashikaga Shogun Yoshimitsu. Patronage of noh continued with the successive rulers of Japan.

Noh Theatre Masks

It is safe to assume that the evolution of masks associated with noh and kyogen followed a similar path.
A tradition that grew out of sargaku is okinamai and it is still part of the noh performance repertory called Shikisaban. The masks used in okinamai exhibit the first signs of the formation of the noh mask. It is evident that these masks which evolved from the foreign influenced gigaku and bugaku masks had been transformed into a uniquely Japanese design.
Four types of masks are used in okinamai, three of which have a detached lower jaw which is fastened to the upper portion with silk cords. Those three are Okina, Sanbaso, and Chichinojo. It is thought that perhaps these masks evolved from certain bugaku masks that also had detached jaws. Okina and Sanbaso both have similar carvings and expressions.

When the mask is white it is Okina and when painted black, it's Sanbaso. There are existing Okina masks which date back to the Kamakura period (1185-1332). Okina and Sanbaso at some point became the predominate characters in okinamai, while the other characters and therefore the masks ceased to be used. These early Okina masks, while not technically noh masks are obviously the predecessors of noh masks.
Okina masks exhibit a definite folk quality that the early noh masks first displayed. All masks became very stylized and standardized during the Edo period (1615-1867).

There are about 80 different masks that are essential for most of the noh plays. But there are well over 200 different masks The typical noh mask is smaller than the face. They are usually shallow in construction and carved from hinoki wood. The masks are carved in such a manner that the expression of the face changes as the shadow and light change with the slightest movement of the head. This feature is important in noh theater since the mask must reflect the mood of the character at that moment in time. But the most important characteristic displayed in every noh mask is its otherworldly quality. It is that quality that cannot be duplicated by an actor's own face or through make-up. Only the main character of the play, called the shite, and his companions wear masks, peripheral characters do not. The shite also did not wear a mask when portraying livings persons. Noh masks are variations of gods, demons, spirits, and young middle aged and old men and women.
There are many plays in which the main character changes into another mask which is supposed to represent the character's true nature. It is the shite who chooses which mask to use for the performance. Once the decision is made, the rest of the costuming is based on that mask. Choosing the mask is a very important process since it dictates the intrepretation the shite places in the character. The mask supersedes the actor's individuality or any intrepretation he personally would put into the performance.

Kyogen play masks exhibit a very playful mood. They display either a very joyful expression or one with distorted absurd facial features such as bulging eyes or protruded mouths. There were several carving families that specialized in noh and kyogen masks. The most well known family was the Deme family and its branches, who were the main mask makers during the Edo period. Below are several examples of noh and kyogen masks:


The hannya mask is the vengeful and jealous woman turned demon. Pointed horns, metallic eyes and teeth, and the expression all exhibit the full wrath, anger and resentment of her nature. The origins of hannya masks may have come from early snake masks but most likely the image was taken from painted hand scrolls of stories and legends of the Muromachi period. In fact one of the oldest hannya masks is dated 1558. Of course the most prominent feature is the horns. Even to this day a hand gesture of two index fingers sticking up from a man's forehead is an indication that his wife is mad at him or jealous. There are many variations of hannya masks. The coloring of the face also signifies the degree of passion in the demon's anger. For example, a more reddish color indicates strong resentment and anger and is used in such plays as Dodoji and Kurozuka, whereas a paler color would be more appropriate for Aoi-no-ue. Dodoji is the story of unrequited love between a woman and a priest of Dodoji (temple). She turns into a demonic serpent who wraps her body around the temple bell consuming it and the priest in the process.


Ko-omote literally means small face. This mask was one of the early masks in the noh repertory, mostly due to the fact that men needed women's masks more than they needed men's masks to pull off the performance. It shows the beautiful face of a young woman whose nature is calm and collected. The face is reflective of the classic Heian beauty: eyebrows are shaved, hair is neatly groomed and in place, and her teeth are blackened. This face shows a woman coming of age yet, idealizes the naivete of youth. There many variations to these masks, where cheeks are made fuller and lips are parted more. The hair placement is important: the three strands of hair do not overlap which is an important convention in ko-omote masks. They represent a calm pysche. The ko-omote can exhibit a higher degree of sensuality dependent on the features carved and painted into the mask. From this base, masks can be carved to show an increase in age by setting the eyes deeper. Other women masks are the shakumi and fukai, which depict middle aged women. Eye openings also reflect age, young woman masks have square openings, older woman masks have half circle openings.



Otoko masks are young man masks. This particular one is called waka-otoko and
represents a youth who is afforded the benefits of a high status in life, although the
hair painted on the sides indicates that he is not aristocracy. Most likely this mask
would be used in plays that require a young man of determination, perhaps a warrior.
There are also numerous varitions on the young men masks. Some show a more
aristocratic bearing. As with young women masks, otoko can show the aging and life
experience process by setting the eyes deeper and the use of more deepening lines
in the brow and mouth. Masks were not worn for male roles in the early stages of noh. However as young and middle aged male masks were developed with their otherworldly characteristics they fit perfectly with the nature of noh.


Uba masks are old woman masks. Typically they are used in the noh play
Takasago. Takasago is a play about the spirit caretakers of the pines found at
Takasago and Sumiyoshi, -Jo, the old man, and Uba, the old woman. They are
usually shown with a broom and and rake. The play exhalts the virtues of a long and
faithful union and passages from the play are read at many marriage ceremonies. It
is obvious from the gray hair and the lines and furrows carved into the mask that this
is a woman who has experienced a great deal in her long life. Although the Uba mask was origianlly
made for Takasago it came to be used in other plays depicting ordinary old women.


Shikami masks are, of course, demon masks. The large furrowed brow, the fanglike
teeth and snarling mouth exhibit a ferocious manner that would put fear into anyone.
The red complexion indicates the degree of rage expressed by the demon, as with the
hannya mask. The eyes and teeth are metallic gold.


Chujo is another youthful man's mask. But this mask shows the bearing of an
aristocrat of the classic Heian period. The mask's light complexion, the high painted
eyebrows and painted black teeth are typical of a court nobleman of that period. It is
said that the mask represented Ariwara no Narihira, a famous Heian poet whose court
rank was middle captain of the Inner Guard, chujo, hence the name of the mask. The
Chujo mask is generally used to represent Prince Genji in The Tale of Genji. The
expression is one of melancholly which is befittting for that role. The mask can also be
worn to represent other courtiers


The Usobuki mask is one of the numerous masks used in kyogen, although the
number of masks in kyogen is much less than noh. Kyogen plays are the comic
interludes between noh dramas. They humerously reflect old tales and the problems
of the human condition. Therefore, these masks reflect that humorous aspect. They
usually exhibit amusing or absurd, exaggerated expressions. Usobuki is one of the
type of masks with an exaggerated expession. The name of the mask can be
interepreted several ways: an expression of innocence, whistling, or blowing on a fire
are several of those. The crossed, bulging eyes, the puckered protruding mouth and up turned whiskers all contribute to a sense of the absurdity of life.
Actors wearing usobuki masks can represent both human characters and the spirits of animals and fragile insects such as moths mosquitoes and cicadas.