Noh Maskmaking

My mask (on the right) and the model. To the left side of my work space are my tools and to the right are the templates.

I started Noh mask making class in the beginning of February. The mask I’m working on is based on a design by Tatsuemon, a famous mask maker of the Edo period. This was one of his three koomote, or young woman, masks, this one entitled, appropriately enough for me, “Yuki” (Snow).

On the first day, after work and grabbing an extra sweater at home, because I was tippling on the edge of catching a cold, I raced to northern Kyoto to make sure I would have enough time to accomplish something. First, Sensei showed me to a cushion placed before a small Buddhist altar at the edge of his stage and had me meditate to relax in preparation for handling the sharp tools and to prepare myself for working with the mask’s spirit hidden within the wood.

The stage I usually had chant and dance lessons on was covered with a thick carpet and tarp to protect it, and students were lined all around the room, working on their masks. One place was not taken, but there lay prepared a block of Japanese cypress wood, a brand new set of tools, and a new set of templates for the Yuki mask. There I sat down, between the president of my company and Sensei’s daughter, a somewhat intimidating position for brand-new me.

Sensei showed me how to start by taking away large amounts of wood. By the end of the first evening, out of the square block I had a rounded block with a portion sticking out where the nose would be.

The second lesson, we started working on the profile of the face by placing a template of Tsutaemon’s mask on the wood and slowly shaving the wood away bit by bit to fit the template exactly. I got to about 90% that evening.

By the third lesson, I finally became engrossed to the point of enjoyment as I took away masses of excess wood around the sides of the face. By the end, rather than seeing the block of wood in front of me, I could see the mask returning my gaze.

In March, the process became more detailed, as I worked on shaping the rounded cheeks, and the smooth forehead. I chiseled away little by little until the seven templates for the sides of the mask fit against the wood. Much to my own disappointment, however, one spot was somehow chiseled too much, because I had held the template at a wrong angle. The right cheek was simply not full and round enough. Seeing this, Sensei said the template wouldn’t help us any more.

“We need some genius powder!”

he said in English. The next lesson, we mixed aforesaid “genius powder” (fine sawdust) with wood glue and stuck it onto the lean right cheek of my mask – in the picture above, you can see it a little bit in the shadow near the chin. An imperfect mask.

Now the areas between the templated points remain. The shape of the eyes and the corners of the mouth are slowly developing. How will these ever be the same as the original, I wonder.

At the March monthly Noh performances at the Kongo Noh Theater, I found for sale a postcard with a picture of the original Yuki mask by Tatsuemon. It is in the Kongo school mask collection, but rarely displayed.

When I placed this photograph of the original mask next to my own mask, the style was completely different. Mine was a somewhat modern face? The overall shape of the original is more pear-like. Mine has thinner cheeks and a more defined chin. But considering I didn’t have the image before this point, my result is to be expected. My anticipation of remaking the same mask again before moving onto another design has grown. My next try will be closer to the original, and I won’t have to use genius powder. I know it.

Now it’s April, and slowly the Mask is becoming a bit more like what it should look like. Although I had once thought the templates were very close to fitting the mask, I have continued to work with them until they are even tighter. For the points in between, either sensei has carved one side and let me do the other or he has placed a model in front of me to compare with mine.

I was working with a model last night, namely the one in the picture above, to smooth out the areas on either side of the nose and to adjust the angles of the eyes. I have heard students say they are frightened of working on the eyes, because that is where so much expression lies. Yet, somehow yesterday I found myself enjoying shaving away the wood bit by bit to match the shape of the eyes on mine to that of the model, keeping in mind what Sensei had said in an earlier lesson that the eyes were not only rounded around the sides of the face but also vertically, so the middle of the eye is the highest point.

In this lesson, I began to feel more confident. Especially when I have something to compare my work with, it’s easier to find even small differences. Yet, although I may see how something is different between the model and my own mask, wielding the knives and chisels gracefully to obtain subtle changes in shape is the next challenge for me.

3 thoughts on “Noh Maskmaking

  1. What a beautiful process. The image of making a face combined with the history of the masks is a very forceful one. Thank you for sharing! I missed reading your blog entries and am happy you are back to writing a few.

  2. Hi Hanna,
    I am doing a technical study on a pair of Japanese oni procession masks (related to gyodo) and I would like to visit a mask carver’s workshop while visiting Kyoto in mid December. I would like to know whether you can recommend workshops to me, and the area of Kyoto they are situated. Thank you very much. Your mask carving experience was enlightening.

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