Monday, July 19, 2010

Noh Mask Carving Demonstration

One Saturday last month visitors to the Wing Luke Museum had the rare opportunity to see a live Noh performance by Nagoya's Chuuden Yuugakukai theater troupe. Noh is a type of traditional Japanese drama that features wooden masks. The intricately carved and lacquered masks transform male actors into stock characters ranging from heroes and maidens (above) to drunken sprites and vengeful crones.

Before the show, there was an even rarer opportunity to see how those masks are created. Since my entire MFA thesis work was based on Noh masks, I wasn't about to let the fact that I was scheduled to work that morning stand between me and seeing the real deal (thanks again for the shift switch, Roxanne!).

Two carvers set up shop in a small conference room for a brief demonstration of their tools and techniques. As they worked on rough but already recognizable masks, the carvers fielded questions from the crowd. As someone who got into carving relatively late in life, I was especially cheered to learn that before their second careers in Noh, both men were co-workers at an electric company.

Their masks-in-progress were the ones that most people would probably think of if challenged to imagine a Noh mask, idealized female features on a smooth, oval-shaped face. Although these faces appear simple (particularly when compared to some other masks that have horns or wrinkles or crazy expressions), their clean, refined symmetry makes them devilishly hard to carve.

In order to stick to an accepted standard, both carvers worked from photos of particularly prized masks. They used a variety of techniques to measure their progress against the model, frequently verifying their proportions with dividers and redrawing guidemarks in pencil as soon as the old ones were carved away. They also used cut paper templates to check the masks' profiles along several key cross-sections.

I was really struck by how frequently both carvers stopped to have a good look at how things were coming along. One of the most amazing things about this character's mask is that it should express different emotions depending on the tilt of the wearer's head, so the carvers made sure to check their work from various angles and in different lighting.

The hinoki (Japanese cypress) from which the masks are carved is close-grained but relatively soft, allowing the carvers to aggressively remove large amounts of material from the back and sides.

After the mask's interior and exterior are carved, another artist will apply coats of lacquer; above, the hair texture on a red-faced Shojo mask. We didn't get to see this step, but that's probably for the best since the materials are pretty toxic.

Although I've examined many Noh masks in pictures and in person, this demonstration thoroughly enriched my understanding and appreciation of the art form. The icing on the cake was the chance to experience a Noh mask from an actor's perspective (above). Although the mask was much lighter than I expected, the eyeholes were incredibly small and difficult to see through. I can only imagine the skill and training required to navigate a spotlit stage in a heavy kimono while blinkered by one of these beautiful masks!


  1. Thank you for this - it's very interesting. I'm starting to put together a unit plan on Mask for a grade 11 Drama class and happened to find your blog. This gives me a lot of ideas!

  2. What brand of carving tools do you recommend for carving noh masks?