4 Theatrical Masks That Captured the Essence of Traditional Japanese Performances

  • Japan is known for its classical musical drama called “Noh,” wherein actors do their performance with the help of different masks. Every mask represents a certain character in the story such as a hero, animal, ghost, devil, etc. These masks are carved from blocks of Japanese cypress and painted to show a variety of emotions. There are several theatrical masks being used in Japan. Let’s get to know four of them!

    1. Gigaku Mask

    Gigaku masks are considered the oldest form of theatrical masks in Japan. They are stylish wooden masks that were used for an ancient dance drama. It is noticeable that the mask shows exaggerated features. They were carved like this in order to retain their comic effect even at a distance since they were commonly used outdoors. It is said that they were carved by Buddhist sculptors, thus they exemplify some of the techniques used in Buddhist sculpture.

    This type of mask covers the whole face as well as the ears. Some Gigaku masks portray lion heads, demons, superhumans, bird-beaked creatures, and the like.

    2. Bugaku Mask

    These masks are used for Bugaku, a Japanese traditional dance that has been performed to select elites mostly in the Japanese Imperial Court. Unlike the Gigaku mask, this type of mask doesn’t cover the ears. It is 7 to 13 inches long and 6 to 9 inches wide.

    The expressions Bugaku masks show are abstract-looking, which implies emotions for dramatic stage effect. They were commonly used for dancing to different types of music such as togaku (orchestral music imported to Japan from the court of T’ang China) and komagaku (a form of traditional Japanese court music).

    3. Gyodo Mask

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    The Gyodo mask is a processional mask of a Bodhisattva, commonly used in religious processions and Buddhist outdoor rites. The masks were also made into other things such as dragon gods, Bishamonten, guardian deities, and other certain demons. It is said that they were worn to represent the 12 Buddhist deities and 28 guardians parading around temple buildings.

    4. Noh Mask

    Noh masks are more modern Japanese masks, inspired by sarugaku (a form of entertainment reminiscent of a modern-day circus), dengaku (a rustic Japanese celebration that developed as a musical accompaniment to planting), and other similar rituals.

    Noh masks were used to represent age, gender, and social rankings of human or non-human beings. They come in different facial expressions which were accompanied by adequate body movements. The holes of the eyes are very small, limiting the vision of the performer. Not all characters wear a mask, making it an honor for an actor to wear one.

    Japanese theater has been around for many years. There are several other masks that were not mentioned such as Otoko masks, Shikami masks, Chujo masks, Uba masks, Ko-omote masks, and many more. All of these played a huge part in Japanese dance and theatrical performances. Each mask has a specific use and feeling to it but all of them truly capture the essence of every story.