Masks used in the Noh theater and worn by the main actor, shite and his companion, tsure. Noh masks nohmen developed in the 14th and 15th centuries, contemporaneously with the narrative dance dramas of sarugaku-no-noh, today known simply as noh. Both the theater form and the masks grew out of local festival customs and then were refined and systematized under the influence of the daimyo class. Both are characterized by subtle expression and restrained dynamics.The earliest noh masks, those for the ritual play OKINA, okinamen, belong to a broad festival and court tradition and predate the master artists who refined and developed the noh, Kan'ami Kiyotsugu (1333-84) and Zeami Motokiyo (1363-1443). While the construction of these okina masks bears comparison with earlier bugaku masks bugakumen, the forms of the other noh masks suggest native Japanese inspiration. The earliest non-okina masks to develop were probably masks of demon-gods, kijinmen derived from those used in festivals enacting the exorcism of evil beings. Old men's masks jomen, have their origin in masks for gods appearing in the guise of an old man. Masks of young women and men, according to the mask historian Nakamura Yasuo, were first created as images of deities and sculpturally derived from Kamakura-era Shinto statues. Roles of ordinary young women were played in the early years by unmasked boys, but by the late 14 century, in response to the composition of poetic plays infused with a transcendent elegance, yugen, carvers created appropriate women's masks onnamen. This allowed mature players of the all-male troupes to perform the demanding female roles. Eventually, masks were also made for courtiers and historic characters, but the roles of living men continue even today to be performed unmasked, hitamen.
Plays about restless spirits were written beginning in the mid-14th century and demanded the creation of masks representing both powerful Shinto spirits and revengeful or suffering spirits from the other world, onryoumen. The naturalistic and distinctly Japanese features of the majority of the noh masks presents a striking contrast to the more abstract bugaku masks and the continental features of the large gigaku masks gigakumen. Their size, also, is comparatively small, the masks being made to fit in front of the face rather than over the head like gigaku masks. A wig that covers the rest of the head and overlaps with the mask completes the realistic portrayal. The actor is entirely contained by the costume and mask. Before a performance the actor venerates the mask, paying respect to the 'life' or 'god' within the mask, and then contemplates his masked visage in preparation for going on stage. His acting will be judged by his capacity to bring out the life in the mask and not be overwhelmed by it.Similarly, masks are evaluated not merely by their technical excellence as art objects, but more importantly by their capacity to come alive on stage. How the mask gains this life is the art of the carver. Historically, the art of carving masks divides into two main periods: creative and re-creative. Until the end of the 15th century noh mask carvers invented new masks for specific roles or types of role. They worked in conjunction with actors, and were not, as for bugaku and gigaku masks, sculptors of Buddhist statues, busshi. A few were actors themselves. Fine masks were treasured, passed on for generations, restored when damaged from wear, and copied. By the 16th century, books classifying no masks appeared, establishing some 125 distinct styles (today the count is closer to 200) distinguished often by details such as the manner of painting the strands of hair and eyebrows, or whether one or two rows of teeth show. During the Edo-era when noh was the official performance art of the shogunal court and daimyo often had their own troupes, the demand for masks increased. Carvers worked to recreate the established name-types, honmen by making copies, utsushi. Prominent mask carver families appeared, such as the Omi Izeki, of whom Kawachi (d. 1645) is the most famous, the Deme with the skilled mask-makers Zekan (d. 1616) and Yuukan (d. 1652), the Deme Genkyu, the Kodama, and the Genri. As master passed on his art to disciple, techniques were refined, and painting methods became more complex.
To suggest age and add patina, areas were shaded with brownish soot. In order to be effective on stage, these copies had not only to be true to the image of the original, but also contain the subtle imbalances and sculptural tensions that allow for shifts in expression on stage. Within a symmetrical visage, one eye was made to look up, the other down, one corner of the mouth to be more exaggerated than the other. Today without daimyo patronage, noh masks are made by individual craftsmen, selling where they can, and in recent years, teaching their art to amateurs. The noh masks are made from unblemished blocks of Japanese cypress hinoki. The front and back are carved alternately, and holes opened for the pupils, nostrils and mouth. A great deal of time is spent moving the mask and observing the flow of its lines to refine the expression. The carved mask then gets multiple layers of prime made from the powdered white pigment gofun mixed with animal glue nikawa. For the final layer of gofun, flesh colors are added. Lastly the features are indicated with black ink sumi, along the hairline and around the eyelids, tiny brush strokes to delineate the hairs for eyebrows, mustache, and shading within the eyeballs, and vermilion for the mouth, and some highlights. Gold paint or metallic insets are used on supernatural figures. The backs of the masks were finished variously, often lacquered. The carving traces on the backs of masks provide clues to the artisan's technique and identity. Often the backs have carved, stamped, or brushed inscriptions giving the name or symbol of the carver, and possibly also such things as the date, place, owner, or occasion.Since some inscriptions were added by the restorer, others faked, they are not an entirely reliable key to dating. Being theatrical tools as much as art objects, noh masks are today housed in each of the five main schools of noh, Kanze, Hosho, Kongo, Kita and Konparu. Large shogunal and daimyo collections of noh masks from the Edo-era are owned by such families as the Tokugawa, Hosokawa, Maeda, Ikeda, and Ii. In addition, shrines, temples and villages that incorporate nou performances in their festivals, such as in the village of Kurokawa, Yamagata prefecture, have important collections. Finally, the national museums in Japan and some museums abroad, such as the Boston Fine Arts, the British Museum, and the Berlin Museum have substantial collections.
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