Magic Mask

These three pictures are of the same Noh mask. It’s carved from wood and has no moving parts, yet just by tipping his head, the actor can change his character’s expression.

Ignorant foreigner that I am, I have to admit that Noh drama is really hard to watch. The language is ancient and arcane, the movements so stylized you need to know which flick of the fan means it’s a saké cup and which changes it into a sword, and the actors (never actresses) glide across the stage wearing masks and extravagant robes that are about as far from natural as you can get.

And yet…if you watch carefully, you can see that the actors are really skillful at making a tiny gesture or tilt of the chin go a long way. The artists who carved the masks were masters of human anatomy, giving a slight sharpening of the cheekbone to indicate that the character is aging, making the eyehole “pupils” of young women square instead of round, rimming the eyes with gold to suggest the character has the glowing eyes of a spirit from another world.

And wearing these masks ain’t easy. I recently had a chance to try one on and was astounded at how blind the actors are when wearing them. Apparently, they have to use the posts at the corners of the Noh stage to orient themselves and count their steps so they know where they are. Also, to put one on properly, it takes about an hour of rearranging cotton between the actor’s face and the mask to get it in the right position. No wonder they have to start studying at the age of three!

Jonelle Patrick is the author of the Only In Tokyo mystery series, published by Penguin/Intermix.

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