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Masks are an essential part of the Japanese noh theater whilst the actors of the Japanese kabuki theater perform without masks. But there is one exception. The kabuki play "Nanatsumen" (The Seven Masks) is a fast role change play with masks. This play and the noh theater are the background for images of Japanese masks shown on Japanese prints.
First Publication: September 2009
Latest Update: May 2013
Masks are a fundamental part of the Japanese noh theater. Noh masks are called omote in Japanese. They serve to characterize a certain role in a play. Noh plays seldom have more than 2-3 actors, and only the actor who represents the main role ("shite") plus his companion ("tsure") wear masks. The narrator ("waki") never wears a mask.
Apart from signalizing the character of the role to the audience, the mask has also the function of hiding any individual traces of the actor. A noh actor is not expected to expose himself as a great individual in playing his role. He is rather expected to emerge completely into the character he is supposed to play. Noh actors usually meditate before stepping on the stage to reach complete identification with their role.
Noh masks are carved out of wood. With their small openings for the eyes they are not very practical for the actors. Therefore noh stages have a kind of grid lines on the floor to enable the actors a minimum of orientation while on stage.
There are roughly 50-60 different categories of noh masks to represent specific characters and beings. Basic categories are:
There are also noh masks used only for particular plays.
I found this video on Youtube uploaded by Decayed Fox. Thanks for sharing with us this impressive collection of Noh masks.
In contrast to noh theater, actors of the kabuki theater usually do not wear a mask. To characterize a role, kabuki uses kumadori, the painted faces. For more information, take a look at our page about kabuki terms.
But there is one exception. Masks play a major role in the kabuki play Nanatsumen - The Seven Masks. This play is one of the famous "Eighteen Kabuki Pieces of Ichikawa Danjuro", also known as kabuki juhachiban.
It is a quick-change piece, in which the protagonist plays a noh mask maker who transforms himself into the characters of different masks, dancing their parts. This play is seldom performed today. But scenes from the play are to be found on Japanese woodblock prints.
Images from the Japanese noh theater are rare on Japanese prints. Ukiyo-e in the 18th and 19th century was a popular mass media for the common people while the noh theater was something for aristocrats and higher classes and not even accessible for commoners. Therefore you will hardly find any Japanese prints from the 18th or 19th century with noh scenes or portraits of noh actors.
Only Tsukioka Kogyo - 1869-1927 focused his activities on this subject in two large print series from the turn of the century and the 1920s.
Kabuki scenes and portraits of kabuki actors, on the other hand, are the major topic of popular Japanese ukiyo-e prints in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Even in the twentieth century the subject remained popular among Japanese printmakers.
Mainly on Japanese kabuki prints from the Meiji period one can find depictions of masks. They refer to the above mentioned kabuki play of The Seven Masks and usually show a famous actor from the lineage of the Danjuro family.
Author: Dieter Wanczura
Friedrich B. Schwan, "Handbuch Japanischer Holzschnitt", 2003, IUDICIUM Verlag, Postfach 701067, D-81310 M�nchen, ISBN 3-89129-749-1.
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Thank you! - Dieter and Yorie