ONE OF THE world’s oldest surviving theatrical arts, Japanese Noh grew out of various forms of popular entertainment at temples, shrines and festivals, including seasonal rites offered by villagers giving thanks for a bountiful harvest. During the Muromachi period (1336-1573), those varied productions were codified into an elaborately contrived entertainment for military leaders, some of whom, like the 16th-century warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi, also acted in Noh. Presented using minimal props on a stage comprising a roof, four pillars and a bridge way, the plays dramatize myths and tales from traditional Japanese literature with monologues, sparse bamboo flute melodies, periodic percussion and tonal chanting. Often, supernatural beings take human form. The pace can be almost hypnotically slow, with the colors and elaborate embroidery of the actors’ costumes indicating their characters’ age and status.
But perhaps the most distinguishing feature of Noh is the carved masks worn by performers. Of the hundreds of masks produced during the Muromachi period, about 40 to 50 form the archetypes for the masks made today, says the historian Eric Rath, who specializes in premodern Japan; many represent different characters, depending on the play. Master mask carvers have long been celebrated for their ability to create a static face that seems to come alive, its expression changing with the angle of the performer’s head and the way the light hits its features. While many Japanese people today have never seen a live Noh performance, the white visage and red lips of a Ko-omote mask (one of a few denoting a young woman) or the bulging golden eyes of the horned Hannya (one of the most famous of the demon masks, representing a wrathful, jealous woman) are both intrinsic to Japan’s visual culture.
Before World War II, only men were allowed to perform Noh professionally; now, some women play leading roles. But until recently, mask making, in which blocks of hinoki cypress carved in high relief are hollowed out, then primed with a white mixture of crushed oyster shells and animal glue — with mineral pigment for lips and cheeks, and gold powder or copper to give the teeth and eyes of masks depicting supernatural beings an otherworldly glow — was a craft largely handed down from father to son.
THAT’S CHANGED SOMEWHAT in the years since the Kyoto-based Mitsue Nakamura, 76, started learning the craft in the 1980s. 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.
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For purists, Nakamura says, a true Noh mask is never entirely decorative: It has to be used onstage, and its maker must hew precisely to a narrow set of centuries-old parameters. Today, Nakamura says, actors prize masks that are antiques or appear to be. Her pieces, each of which takes about a month to complete, often look older than they are thanks to the shadows she smudges into the contours of the face, or a weathering she achieves by scratching the paint with bamboo.
In 2018, the Kanagawa-based playwright and screenwriter Lilico Aso, 48, came to see Nakamura’s process firsthand because she was interested in developing a character who was a Noh mask carver; instead, she became a mask carver herself, drawn, she says, to the idea of being “both a craftsman and an artist.” She’s been studying with Nakamura ever since and, last fall, in a show titled “Noh Mask Maker Mitsue Nakamura and Her Four Disciples” at Tokyo’s Tanaka Yaesu gallery, she exhibited a series of four masks called “Time Capsule” inspired by celebrities and fictional characters. Rihanna became an earth goddess with pearlescent blue lips and eye shadow. Ariana Grande morphed into the moon princess Kaguya, who, in an ancient tale, rejects all her mortal suitors and returns to her lunar home; in Aso’s rendering, she has the high, soft eyebrows of a Noh beauty.
For some female Noh artisans, subtle changes to traditional forms emerge from a deep personal connection. Keiko Udaka, 43, who also works in Kyoto, grew up steeped in Noh, with a father who was both a performer and a mask maker. She began studying with him when she was a teenager; in 2021, after he died, she took over an unfinished Noh play he was working on, commissioned by a town in Ehime prefecture, on the island of Shikoku. While one of her brothers completed the script, Udaka created a mask for the main character, a folk hero who starved to death while cultivating barley for future generations, imbuing it with the features of their late father. Such homages aren’t an uncommon practice among Noh artisans, and the allure is obvious: As Udaka says, a painstakingly crafted carving is more indelible than a photo. “Memories can be recorded too easily in many places now,” she says, “and they don’t remain in our minds.”
While Udaka’s departures from tradition are subtle, those of the Tokyo-based Shuko Nakamura (no relation to the Kyoto mask maker), 34, are unignorable. Inspired by Noh history, folklore and her own imagination, she makes masks out of modeling clay and paper rather than wood. One mask depicts an old woman, a crown of blue-black crows circling above her forlorn face, alluding to the ubasute story — which appears in both folk tales and Noh — of an elderly family member abandoned in the forest. With deep smile lines, a long horsehair beard and bushy pompom eyebrows, another mask honors the form of Okina, a spirit who appears as an old man. A gnarled pine tree sprouts from the mask’s head in place of hair; at the roots nestle a pair of turtles. The conifers and reptiles, she says, are references to the characteristic illustrations on the fan Okina holds when he dances.
Out of respect for the ancient art, Shuko Nakamura refers to her creations as “creative masks” rather than Noh masks, but the tribute is clear. And even a traditional mask maker like Mitsue Nakamura sees the place for works that expand the boundaries of Noh’s conservative culture. “Of course, the best masks are those used onstage,” she says, “but I think we should also make Noh masks that can stand on their own.”
Photo assistants: Megan Collante, Orion Johnson