The word Noh is derived from the word for Skill or Talent. As Noh is an art form that uses masks, there is a great variety of them depending on if you they are portraying a man, woman, old, young, angry, funny, etc. There were originally about 60 basic types of Noh masks, but today there are well over 200 different kinds in use.
Masks have played a central role in Noh theatre since the art form was created in the 14th century. The masks are connected with the appearance of the gods on stage.
Covering the face with a mask is much like wearing makeup. However, Noh performers feel that the Noh mask has a certain power inherent in it which makes it much more spiritual than a prop used to change ones appearance. The Noh performer will carefully choose a Noh mask, known also as a noh-men or omote. In most cases, the exact mask is not predetermined, but depending on which Noh is being done, the shite has a variety to choose from. In the end, it is up to the shite to make the final determination as to which mask is chosen.
As it is often difficult to tell the actual feelings expressed in a noh mask, it is said to be made with a “neutral” expression. The mask carver tries to instill a variety of emotions in the mask.
It is up to the performer to imbue the mask with emotion. One of the techniques used in this task is to slightly tilt the mask up or down. With terasu (tilting upwards) the mask appears to be slightly smiling or laughing and the expression lightens somewhat. While kumorasu (tilting downwards), produces a slight frown and can express sadness or crying. Basically, by using minute movements, the performer is able to express very fully.
Noh masks, like costumes and props, are extremely valuable heirlooms and handed down from generation to generation.
After having the costume put on, the shite then goes to the kagami no ma (mirror room) where in front of a mirror, the shite faces the mask. In putting the mask on, the word kaburu (putting on clothing) is not used. Instead the word kakeru (to hang) or tsukeru (to attach) is used. In this way, it is implying that the performer is “becoming” the mask, and its emotions, in order to better express the characters feelings.
As the eye holes of the mask are very small, the field of vision of the performer is very limited when wearing the mask. Consequently the simple design of the stage and the use of hashira (pillars) assists in helping the performer know their location during a performance.
However, even without wearing a mask, the performer is meant to “make their face a mask.” The performer must inject power and emotion into their performance while not using their face to express.
We have 2 vintage Noh Masks on display at our store if you are interested in viewing them. They haven't yet had the faces painted on them and are collectors items to visualize the possible faces.