Noh Mask - Types of Noh Masks and Noh

Hawk Noh Mask

The word Noh means talent, skill and craft in art performance. Noh is the oldest theater style played today.

Noh is classical Japanese musical drama based on tales from traditional literature performed since the 14th century. In the story, supernatural creature transforms into human shape and tells the story. The actors tell a story through gestures and appearance in masks. They capture the essence of the story with masks, props and costumes trough dance performance.

Kyōgen is a form of traditional Japanese comic performance in the theater. It was performed as an intermission between Noh acts. Traditionally Noh play consists of five Noh acts with kyōgen act in between. Nowadays it is shortened, and it has two Noh acts and one kyōgen act.

Noh masks are carved from single piece of wood painted with natural pigments. Mask represents age, gender and social ranking of human or nonhuman being like animal, demon or divine. All of the masks have a distinctive name. There are 60 types and over 400 different masks. Noh mask is used to emphasize and stylize the facial expressions which is accompanied with adequate body language and movement in order to stimulate the imagination of the audience of Noh play.

Mask is made when slightly held differently it gives slightly different expression. When the mask is held slightly upward, it will get more light, and it would look more smiling. When the mask is held slightly downward, it would look more mad or sad. The holes on the eyes are very small, so the field of vision of the performer is very limited. Not all the characters wear a mask. It is the honor of the main characters. Actors who don’t wear a mask are expected to make very distinctive face expressions like mask expression.

If the mask is worn by skilled actor, it has a variety of perceived expressions with changes in head orientation. Rotation of the head changes the two-dimensional image and viewers may misinterpret it as facial muscle action.

Types of Noh Masks

The types of Noh masks are:

  • Otoko – men mask
  • Chūjō – has a noble womanish look, represents sophisticated, educated, graceful and sorrowful man.
  • Kagekiyo – represents a deranged person, once a great soldier who was defeated and exiled, prisoned, lost his sight and became a beggar.
  • Kumasaka – a famous thief and leader of a gang of robbers, has bright eyes that represent strong caution
  • Onna – women mask
  • – has classical features of the broad forehead and tense cheeks that show the dignity of the goddess, fairy or celestial nymph character.
  • Rōjo – has the thin aged face of an old woman and straight nose and sparkle in the eyes showing a glimpse of the beauty of youth.
  • Fukai – is the portrait of a middle-aged woman in her forties with wrinkles from build up experiences like love, marriage, pregnancy, children, and divorce.
  • Onryō – spirit or ghost mask
  • Yase-onna – looks weak and in misery, represents a woman with grudge and jealousy who could not go to Nirvana and became a ghost.
  • Ja – has a frightening face with its mouth widely and menacingly opened. It represents a woman who feels extremely angry and holds a grudge and transforms into a serpent.
  • Namanari – represents a woman filled with anger and holding a grudge after being deserted by her husband. She is overflowing with emotions. The mask has small horns and widely cloven mouth. It is the first stage of becoming a demon. At the same time, she has a fierce and pitiful look.
  • Kishin – demons
  • Shishiguchi – it represents a Buddha’s appearance, has a face of a roaring lion, has a power of exorcism and is the omen for expelling evil spirits.
  • Yakan – it has two short horns and wild hair, it can impersonate an old beast having a body of a fox and a voice of a wolf. At the same time, it has charm and fear.
  • Myōga-akujō – it has a grim and fierce appearance and represents a grim old man with superhuman power.
  • Okina – old men mask
  • Hakushiko-jō – it has a soft smile symbolizing the world at peace, long life, good harvest and prosperity of the future generations.
  • – elder mask
  • Sankō – jō – has deep lines on its cheeks and across its forehead that show common man, a powerful fisherman struggling with a rough sea.

The most known Hannya mask represents jealous female demon in noh and kyōgen Japanese traditional theater plays and Shinto Kagura ritual dances. The mask has a learing mouth, sharp teeth, metallic eyes and two sharp devil-like horns. The expression of Hannya mask is at the same time demonic, angry, frightening, dangerous and tormented, sad, heartbreaking, melancholic and sorrowful. She begins as typical female, but when she is betrayed, get angry and jealous she turns into a demon.

Traditionally Noh actors begin their training at the age of three. In the early years, all roles were played by a male. Since 1940s woman began to perform.

Noah actors wear wigs, hats and colorful, rich texture silk robes called shozoku. Musicians and chorus wear formal kimono.

The singing is limited in tonal range and is in chanted manner with repetitive passages. Texts are poetic. Melody is not in the center of singing.

The traditional Noh stage is opened so the audience can see the actors’ movement even when they are not on stage and has no curtain. Props are minimalistic. All performers have their hand fan. A hand fan is often placed on the side and picked up when leaving the stage. During the performance, it can represent all kind of objects like a sword.

Noh play categories are:

  • Genzai – about human characters
  • Mugen – about supernatural like gods and spirits
  • Ryōkake – combination of first two
  • Categories of Noh performers are:
  • Hayashi – is the musician who plays Noh instruments
  • Shite – is the lead role in play, the protagonist
  • Kyōgen – is the actor in interludes
  • Waki – is the counterpart of Shite
  • Kuroko – is the running man who gives props to the actor
  • Hayashi – ensemble and chorus

It’s origins date back to Chinese art form sangaku from the 8th century that involved dance, song, acrobatics and comic parts.

Noh tradition was founded by Kan'ami Kiyotsugu, first Japanese Noh actor, author and musician and his son Zeami Motokiyo, Japanese actor, playwriter and aesthetician.

Noh incorporated Japanese art forms like:

  • gagaku – dance and music from 7th century performed on Imperial Court
  • shirabyōshi – dance from 12th century performed by female dancers on Imperial Court
  • sarugaku – entertainment performance that includes acrobatics, pantomime, and juggling
  • dengaku – musical and dance accompaniment to rice planting that celebrated rice planting

Noh theater had a few eras in its development:

  • Muromachi era – It lasted from 14th to 16th century on the court. It began with Noh theater founders Kan'ami Kiyotsugu and Zeami Motokiyo.
  • Tokugawa era – Noh theater continued to save its authenticity and to be aristocratic entertainment.
  • Modern Noh – in the 19th-century new modernized government didn’t give financial support to the Noh theater. The support was later regained. Noh theater switched from court to general public. In 1983. National Noh Theatre was founded. Today it has regular performances.

Jo-ha-kyū concept means that all actions should begin slowly, speed up and end swiftly. Traditional Noh play has five acts that fall under the jo-ha-kyū concept:

  • jo – means beginning, slow (the first act)
  • ha – means breaking, faster (the second, third and fourth act)
  • kyū – means rapid, culmination (the fifth act)