Friday, 25 January 2013

Masks at an Exhibition

At exhibitions, my staying power is short. Half an hour, and then however big the exhibition is, I want to be in the gift shop. But, at a huge noh exhibition held in a Ginza department store to celebrate Zeami's 650th anniversary, I broke my own rule and stayed for over an hour!

My sudden surge of energy was mainly because of the masks they had on display. Normally, you're lucky if you get to see one priceless relic mask close up. At this exhibition there were about 50 of them, all almost close enough to touch. Noh masks are unsettling - expressionless, but full of a vitality that is completed once the actor is wearing it. My favourite was the old woman who remembers being beautiful, higaki onna.

In full lighting viewed straight on, she looks shocked - perhaps a bit annoyed. Angled slightly this way or that - totally different. Lights don't usually go down in a noh performance so the actors' very subtle gestures have to do all the work. But the effects are even more dramatic with stage lighting. This week, on the stage of a fusion performance I went to at Tokyo's Spiral Hall, the lone noh actor was wearing this very mask. During the show, he had filled the stage with a fizzing energy even though he was sitting still most of the time. But when the lights started to fade, the mask, and the character, seemed to turn to stone and disappear. All in absolute stillness.

I've been reading quite a bit about noh masks lately, and the more I read, the more fascinating they become. Best of all was an article I came across in No/Kyogen Masks and Performanceabout the actor's relationship with the mask, an interview with Udaka Michishige, an important shite main actor in the Kongo school of noh. Where there is a choice of masks for a particular play, he, like lots of other noh actors, implies that to a surprisingly large extent the mask chooses its actor - for him to be comfortable wearing it, there was to be a degree of 'right' ness about the mask, which fits its bearer. This was particularly interesting coming from Michishige, who is both mask-maker and noh actor.

In another article in the same book, the late Kanze Hisao explains a bit more about the unusually intimate relationship a noh actor has with his chosen mask before and during a given play. Masks don't turn a character into a type as they do in Greek theatre or other masked drama - rather, they become one with the wearer, his 'companion' in the piece. The mask strives for some sort of universality - so it's the mask and not the bare face that is supposed to represent the more 'human' of the characters when its representing a dead person.

All this, from one exhibition?! Perhaps I'll stay a whole hour at the next one, too. But, it'll have to be pretty good.


  1. Hi Laura, thanks for this post. I should specify that Udaka Michishige (my teacher) is one of the high-ranking actors of the Kongo School, but not the head of the school (iemoto) - that would be Kongo Hisao.

  2. Thanks so much for reading it! I'm half delighted, but half mortified - now I know you might read my posts, I'll have to try harder to write well! Thanks also for the correction - I've amended it now, so at least THAT part reads ok. Looking forward to YOUR next post!