By the 15th century, the Japanese dramatic art form known as Noh had coalesced out of various performing arts into a sophisticated masked drama, but the first Noh masks were extant well before then. In other words, the first generation of performers adopted existing folk masks for the Noh stage. Initially, only the roles of deities and demons were masked. As the repertoire broadened and the content became more complex, new characters were created, and actors began wearing masks to portray mortal men and women. This development catalyzed the creation of masks expressly for the Noh stage.

A 17th-century actor could choose from among 60 or so standardized types of Noh masks, from which many patterns and variations were derived, bringing the total number of differentiated masks to more than 250. A mask embodies the essence of the character's persona, so the interpretations and nuance that an actor can bring to a role depends considerably on the range of masks available to him.

The mask types featured here are customarily worn in the plays scheduled as part of the Kanze Noh Theatre’s appearance in Lincoln Center Festival: Okina, Hagoromo, Sumida Gawa, Busshi, Shakkyō, Kaki Yamabushi, and Aoi no Ue.

  • Okina

    A ritual dance originating in folk religion, Okina was incorporated into the early Noh repertoire. The Okina mask existed long before Noh. Recent research has dated one example in a German museum to 1278, more than 200 years earlier than the oldest fully developed Noh mask with a reliable provenance [1]. Reflecting this ancient lineage, Okina differs radically from all other Noh masks: the jaw is separate and tied to the mask with strings; the eyebrows consist of tufts of cotton, hemp, or fur pasted to the forehead; and the elongated eyes are fully excised. Commonly venerated as the god of bounty and prosperity in temples and shrines, the Okina mask is accorded a unique degree of reverence by Noh troupes. The performer dons the mask on stage in full view of the audience to emphasize his transformation into a benevolent deity.

    Image: Okina, 16th century, attributed to Nikkō

    • Hagoromo

      Masks of women evolved from folk masks that depicted female deities, and in Noh they often portray angels and goddesses. The lead character of Hagoromo is just such an angel, who performs an elegant dance to thank a fisherman for returning her lost robe. The mask most commonly worn for this role is Zō-onna, a young-woman mask with a rather austere expression. Kanze performers sometimes opt for Waka-onna, which has a gentler and more youthful countenance [2]. Even though many of the characters that they represent are commoners or peasants, all woman masks exhibit the hallmarks of a court lady—artificial eyebrows painted high up on the forehead, blackened teeth, and a creamy complexion—a reflection of the importance of elegance and refinement to the ethos of Noh.

      Left: Zō-onna, 17th century, by Kodama Ōmi; Right: Waka-onna, 17th or early 18th century, by Tōsui

      • Sumida Gawa

        The lead character of this play, a grieving mother driven insane with grief over the loss of her child, is a lowborn woman. Regardless, the masks of a middle-aged woman used for the role have all of the features of a court lady. Kanze performers wear Fukai, whereas several other troupes prefer Shakumi [3]. Both masks convey age through the downcast eyes, furrows along the sides of the mouth, unsmiling lips, and hints of gauntness in the deep eye sockets and tautness of the cheeks. Shakumi generally appears older than Fukai because of a more concave configuration of the face and the locks of hair receding from the center part.

        Left: Fukai, probably 17th century, artist unknown; Right: Shakumi, 17th or early 18th century, artist unknown

        • Shakkyō

          Some Noh plays retain an overtly religious theme, with little or no dramatic content. In the first act of Shakkyō, a Japanese holy man searching for the abode of bodhisattva Mañjuśrī high up on Mt. Ch'ing-liang in China comes upon a narrow slippery stone bridge and is warned to wait there for an omen by a mysterious woodcutter who suddenly appears. The interpretation of the woodcutter's character differs sharply among the troupes. Kanze actors usually perform the role with Dōji, the mask of an adolescent sprite, whereas several other troupes often portray the character with the mask Kojō as an aged deity personified by a stern old man [4].

          The omen appears in the second act: the celestial lion, guardian of the bodhisattva, bursts forth from the forest and cavorts among the red and white peonies blooming throughout the mountain. All troupes use a Shishiguchi mask for the lion. In special performances, a cub accompanies its parent [5]. Representing the cub, a typical Kojishi mask is smaller than Shishiguchi, and the features are less exaggerated.

          Celestial deities that serve as guardians of the Buddha and bodhisattva have a ferocious appearance and resemble masks depicting malevolent demons from hell. A golden complexion signifying righteousness clearly distinguishes the former from the latter.

          Clockwise from top left: Dōji, 18th or early 19th century, artist unknown; Kojō, 16th century, artist unknown; Shishiguchi, late 16th century, artist unknown; Kojishi, probably 18th century, artist unknown

          • Aoi no Ue

            In the first act of this popular play, a spiritual medium is summoned to divine the nature of a strange malady afflicting Lady Aoi, but an uninvited guest also appears: the troubled spirit of Princess Rokujō, who is obsessed with Lady Aoi's husband. Deigan most often represents the spirit. The basic conformation of the mask is that of a young woman, but the disheveled locks, the tension suffusing the expression, and, especially, the gilding of the eyes and teeth signify a supernatural persona in a highly agitated state.

            In the second act, that agitation erupts into overwhelming fury, which transmogrifies Princess Rokujō's spirit into a homicidal fiend. Long menacing horns, gilded eyes glaring malevolently, and a snarling fanged maw suit the mask Hannya ideally to this role. Standard Hannya have a flesh-toned coloration, but a white-complexioned pattern of the mask, Shirohannya, is sometimes worn to emphasize the refined, high-born persona of Princess Rokujō.

            From left: Deigan, 17th or early 18th century, by Tōhaku; Hannya, 17th century, by Yūkan; Shirohannya, 18th century, by Izumi-no-Jō

            • Busshi

              A majority of Kyōgen roles are portrayed unmasked: among the 263 skits comprising the Kyōgen repertoire, masked performers appear in only 76 [6]. Indeed, male actors often portray female characters without a mask. Moreover, these comedy performances do not involve nuanced interpretation of a role. As a result, relatively few masks are needed: basic types number about 25, and the inclusion of variations and derivatives brings the total to less than 100 differentiated masks [7].

              In Busshi, a confidence man wears an Oto mask to impersonate, literally, a Buddhist sculpture of the celestial goddess Kichijō Tennyo, in an attempt to swindle a rube from the countryside. Like several other types of Kyōgen masks, Oto is derived from and parodies a Noh mask, in this case a young-woman mask. Kyōgen masks are less standardized than Noh masks. The first Oto illustrated here is cute and charming; the second example, earthy and buffoonish. A performer could choose the former to suggest the sanctity or refinement of the subject, or the latter to highlight the sheer absurdity of the scene.

              Left: Oto, 17th or 18th century, artist unknown; Right: Oto, 16th or early 17th century, by Iseki

            Stephen Marvin is the author of Heaven Has a Face, So Does Hell: The Art of the Noh Mask (Warren, Connecticut: Floating World Editions, Inc., 2010).



            [1] Setsuko Ōtani, Nōmen wo Kagaku suru; Sekai no Kamen to Engeki (Tokyo: Bensei Kabushikigaisha, 2016) 14

            [2] Nagai Haneda, Nō no Omote: Iike Shozōhin ni Yoru (Tokyo: Kokuritsu Nōgakudō, 1983) 26

            [3] Haneda, Nō no Omote: Iike Shozōhin ni Yoru, 25

            [4] Haneda, Nō no Omote: Iike Shozōhin ni Yoru, 25

            [5] Noh Kyōgen Jiten, ed. Haruo Nishino and Nagai Haneda (Tokyo: Heibonsha Ltd., 1999) 72

            [6] Seki Kobayashi, "Kyōgen-men ni Tsuite," in Kyōgen-men Reisan (Tokyo: Haga Shoten, 1981) 168

            [7] Kobayashi, "Kyōgen-men ni Tsuite," 166