Watch a Japanese Artisan Make a Noh Mask, Creating an Astonishing Character From a Single Block of Wood

Noh actors under­go years of rig­or­ous train­ing to per­fect their per­for­mance tech­nique.

The ancient clas­si­cal art requires actors’ faces to be obscured by rigid masks carved from sin­gle blocks of hino­ki wood. A thor­ough com­mand of pos­ture, phys­i­cal ges­ture, and voice is essen­tial for con­vey­ing the char­ac­ters’ emo­tions.

The qual­i­ty of the mask is of utmost impor­tance, too.

Naka­mu­ra Mit­sue, a mak­er of tra­di­tion­al Noh masks, whose inter­est in human faces and por­trai­ture orig­i­nal­ly led her to study west­ern art, notes that the cre­ator must pos­sess a high degree of skill if the mask is to func­tion prop­er­ly. The best masks will sug­gest dif­fer­ent atti­tudes from dif­fer­ent angles.

Tera­su, or an upwards tilt con­veys hap­py emo­tions, while the down­ward tilt of kumora­su express­es dark­er feel­ings and tears.

The most expert­ly carved masks’ eyes will appear to shift as the actor changes posi­tion.

The full range of human expres­sion is the most dif­fi­cult to achieve with del­i­cate-fea­tured female Noh masks.

“I used to change its direc­tion and stare at it in the mir­ror all night,” Ms. Naka­mu­ra writes on her web­site, recall­ing how her men­tor, the cel­e­brat­ed crafts­man Yasue­mon Hori, taught her how to carve Ko-Omote, a mask rep­re­sent­ing the youngest woman in the Noh canon.

When cre­at­ing a mask of a beau­ti­ful girl or child I feel very hap­py but when cre­at­ing an onryo (ghost spir­it) I can feel sor­row or anger.

Ms. Nakamura’s ded­i­ca­tion, exper­tise and patience are on abun­dant dis­play in the word­less Process X video, above.

She is, as the New York Times notes, one of a grow­ing num­ber of female prac­ti­tion­ers:

When she began, she knew of only one oth­er woman in the field, but this year, all four of her cur­rent appren­tices, some of whom study for as long as 10 years, are female. Some adhere to the tra­di­tion­al arche­types and tech­niques, while oth­ers rad­i­cal­ly rein­ter­pret them.

Like many oth­er Japan­ese women of her gen­er­a­tion, she did as expect­ed, mar­ry­ing and hav­ing chil­dren short­ly after com­plet­ing her edu­ca­tion. She began study­ing mask mak­ing when her chil­dren began school, wait­ing until they were 18 to leave her mar­riage. By then, she was well posi­tioned to sup­port her­self as a pro­fes­sion­al nō-men-shi (Noh mask mak­er.)

A sin­gle mask by a respect­ed nō-men-shi can take a month to com­plete, but can fetch a price in the neigh­bor­hood of ¥500,000.

Ms. Naka­mu­ra labors in a work­shop in her tra­di­tion­al-style home in Kyoto.

Her tools and sup­plies are equal­ly old-fash­ioned — a mix­ture of seashell pow­der and rice glue, a mor­tar and pes­tle, a chis­el that she wields per­ilous­ly close to her knees and slip­per-clad feet…

As Jason Haidar writes in Kan­sai Scene:

It may be no coin­ci­dence that Ms. Naka­mu­ra wields a chis­el so nat­u­ral­ly and with such skill, One of the main chis­els used for carv­ing Noh masks is called a tou, which is anoth­er word mean­ing samu­rai sword. Ms. Naka­mu­ra always cred­it­ed her par­ents for encour­ag­ing her to learn a skill that could allow her to sup­port her­self with­out a hus­band, and this mod­ern think­ing could be attrib­uted to her fam­i­ly being of samu­rai lin­eage. After the reforms of the Mei­ji Restora­tion (1868–1912) that saw the ush­er­ing in of mod­ern Japan, her ances­tors learned the impor­tance of being self-suf­fi­cient, inde­pen­dent, and hav­ing a diverse range of skills – val­ues which were passed down to her.

Explore a gallery of Mit­sue Nakamura’s Noh masks here. Click on spe­cif­ic images to learn about each mask’s pur­pose in Noh, rec­og­nized by UNESCO as hav­ing “Intan­gi­ble Cul­tur­al Her­itage”.

via Aeon

Relat­ed Con­tent 

A Hyp­not­ic Look at How Japan­ese Samu­rai Swords Are Made

Watch a Tra­di­tion­al Japan­ese Car­pen­ter Make 190+ Dif­fer­ent Joints, All With­out Nails, Screws, or Glue

Japan­ese Restau­rants Show You How to Make Tra­di­tion­al Dish­es in Med­i­ta­tive Videos: Soba, Tem­pu­ra, Udon & More

20 Mes­mer­iz­ing Videos of Japan­ese Arti­sans Cre­at­ing Tra­di­tion­al Hand­i­crafts

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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