Japanese Masks: A unique identity

Japan is famous for its impressive theatre and performance, both of which often incorporate the use of unique Japanese masks. Along with often being used in theatre, traditional Japanese masks are mainly decorative and are usually available to purchase at shrine festivals and events. Japanese masks have long been connected to folk myths and tails with many of them representing people, creatures, devils, ghosts, and animals. Some traditional masks include; Gigaku, Bugaku, Gyodo, Tengu, Kappa, Noh, Kyōgen, Shinto, Kagura, Kitsune, Hyottoko, Oni, Kabuki, Samurai, Kendo and Animegao. Let’s take a look at some of these unique masks, their meaning and why they are so widely used across Japan.

Gigaku masks

Gigaku Japanese masks are some of the most traditional of Japanese masks. These masks were often used in dance-drama as an art form which longer exists today. These unique masks were designed to represent the face of superhuman, demon, lion or bird and were handcrafted from wood. Alongside Gigaku, there were also Bugaku masks; another traditional Japanese mask also used in dance-drama which featured moveable jaws.

Gyodo masks

Japanese masks such as the Gyodo are used to represent traditional Buddhist figures and are often used for outdoor Buddhist processions. The name of these masks represents three distinct ceremonies: ritual of temple buildings or images while chanting sutras, masked processions during memorial services, and, in Pure Land Buddhism, reenactments of the descent of Amida.

Oni masks

Oni are demons and can be found on many Japanese masks, they are usually depicted as red-faced and angry with long sharp teeth. Oni masks are most common during the Bean-Throwing Festival, also known as Setsubun, when people wear them for festival performances at shrines.

Tengu masks

Tengu are the fearsome demi-gods who protect the mountains. These Japanese masks depict red faces and angry expressions, but their most obvious feature is a long, red nose. In the past, Tengu were more birdlike, as they became human, the beak turned into a nose but kept its long shape. These Japanese masks are used for Noh stage plays and at certain Shinto festivals. They’re also often used as a decoration since the Tengu are thought to frighten bad spirits and bring good luck.

Kitsune masks 

Japanese masks often represent animals, and the Kitsune mask is a popular Japanese mask that takes on the form of a fox. This type of mask has strong links to Japanese culture,  where the fox is known to possess different personalities; it can be good or evil depending on the situation and in Shinto religion, the Fox is a messenger of the god Inari, the protector of rice, agriculture, and fertility. These Japanese masks are worn by participants in certain Shinto festivals or by attendees to join in.

Kabuki masks

Kabuki is a modern Japanese theatre art form which uses a whole host of Japanese masks in its performances. Kabuki masks have replaced more classical ones with painted faces and make-up using ingredients such as rice powder to create a white base for mask-like make-up. Make-up is used to exaggerate and enhance facial lines with the designs incorporating different colours, each with their own representations much like other Japanese masks. Purple lines represent nobility while green lines represent the supernatural, and red lines represent passion, hedonism, and other positive things. Blue or black lines represent jealousy, villainy, and other negative sentiments.

Noh & Kyogen masks

As part of Kabuki theatre, there is also a range of Japanese masks that are used amongst Noh and Kyogen performances. Kyogen is often performed as comic relief during the intermissions of Noh theatre, a typically more serious and solemn performance, where a range of masks are used. In Kyogen, actors performing non-human roles wear masks, and in Noh, masks are even more common, with hundreds of different styles and designs available for actors to use.

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