No Mask

Book Selection

Japan: Edo

The female face of a mask from the No theater of Japan smiles at us. She smiles at the many masks we ourselves wear in the world.

Artist: Unknown Mask: polychromed wood Height: 8.2 in. (21 cm); width: 5.3 in. (13.5 cm) Eighteenth Century CE Site: Japan Location: Eisei Bunko, Tokyo, Japan

Not all the actors of the classical no theater of Japan wear masks, but the protagonist always wears one, and since all the actors are male, female roles of whatever importance always require a mask. There are ten masks for women, which vary according to age or, more subtly, according to the nuance of a certain age. Here we see the ko-omote, or 'small-face' mask, which suggests the delicate grace and charm of a young woman; but her open lips hint at erotic charm not meant by similar faces. This mask, and others like it, express a standard of beauty for the time: the face is oval and full, black hair parted severely in the middle but with loose strands falling neatly down the sides of the face, a rather large nose, a tiny mouth with reddened lips and teeth that have been blackened by a paste containing iron filings, a mark of adulthood. While the mask is smaller than the actual human face, its proportions are typically Japanese. Medieval women altered those proportions, however, by shaving their eyebrows and painting new bushy ones high on the forehead, as we see here to give the impression of a longer, aesthetically more pleasing face.

Cultural Commentary

Like Greek drama, and perhaps all theater, Japanese no ('ability, talent') is rooted in religion. Flourishing in the fourteenth century under the guidance of the great actor and playwright Kan'ami Kiyotsugu (1333-1384) and his even more talented son Zeami Motokiyo (1363-1443), no drama grew out of the shamanic dances of the prehistoric period, out of Shinto festivals evoking and entertaining the gods, and out of Buddhist monk impersonations of supernatural guardians and foes of the Dharma. What is more subtly but also more powerfully religious about this 'glory of all Japanese theater,' however, is its guiding aesthetic principle: a term difficult to render but captured in part by the words 'mystery and depth' (Varley, 88). That principle is achieved by a text that is a mixture of prose and poetry, much wordplay, many obscure allusions, while each syllable is said with attention to the theatrical tradition behind that syllable, spoken with such weight and so slowly that even the Japanese cannot understand what is being said without knowing the play. The convention makes great demands upon the audience, who sit without leaving the room through perhaps two hours of drama produced by only ten pages of script, who see few props and very little action if any at all. The shite, or protagonist, of the highly popular Komachi at Sekidera simply sits in her stylized little hut for an hour speaking with the slightest of gestures. There is no rise and fall of plot; the players are a few actors, assisted by a small seated chorus and several musicians on drums and a flute. Yet the effect of no is haunting and deeply moving. As the translator Donald Keene has put it, these plays are 'distillations of powerful emotions' jealousy, loyalty, disappointment over unrequited love, the emotions found in Western dramas as well, but here the 'emotion is so absolute as to border at times on the impersonal' (11). 'Oh, sad!' speaks the shite, or the words are said for that actor by the chorus or by someone else, as if it does not matter whose line this is only that 'absolute sadness' be expressed. There is nothing personal in no; and the mask serves that dramatic intent.

One of the most dignified but also most popular of the 240 plays now in repertory is The Deserted Crone, by Zeami himself. It opens with a traveler and his two companions journeying from the city to a famous mountain to gaze at the moon there, a journey that takes just a few steps on stage. Soon, an Old Woman (wearing the fukai mask) walks slowly out of the dressing or 'mirror' room and across a bridge ornamented with pine trees to the stage like a divinity, some think, descending to earth. She hints at her true identity.

traveler: Who are you that you should entertain me tonight?

old woman: In truth, I am from Sarashina...

traveler: But where do you live now?

old woman: Where do I live now? On this mountain...

The Old Woman disappears, and the Traveler learns from a passing Villager the tragic tale of an aunt who raised an orphaned boy, who when grown and married abandoned the old woman to a lonely death upon this very mountain.

The Old Woman reappears but this time wearing the uba mask of a ghost, to reveal her true self as a spirit:

traveler: Strange,

In this moonlit night already grown so late

A woman robed in white appears

Do I dream? Is it reality?

The woman dances, despite her age, and recites poetry about the moon as an image of the unwavering light of Amida Buddha, then catches herself:

ghost: But here the moon through its rift of clouds,

Now full and bright, now dimly seen,

Reveals the inconstancy of this world

Where all is perpetual change.

The Traveler leaves, and the Ghost of the Old Woman weeps.

Chorus: Abandoned again as long ago.

And once again all that remains

Desolate, forsaken crag,

Mountain of the Deserted Crone.

(She spreads her arms and remains immobile.)

Archetypal Commentary

Situated at the front of the head, the face is one of the most significant parts of the human body. Rarely clothed and actually difficult to hide if one is to move easily in the world, it meets us first in public. The face carries organs of sense and communication while its own flexible musculature is highly expressive; furthermore, the arrangement of facial features, their size and proportion, often determines the standard of beauty in a culture. If they do not measure up, there are cosmetics and cosmetic surgery; some may even resort to hiding in order to 'save face.' While all this activity is designed to adapt to a collective standard, it is nevertheless true that the face is a remarkably unique part of ourselves. As Thomas Browne, a seventeenth-century writer, observed, 'It is the common wonder of all men, how among so many millions of faces there should be none alike' (de Vries, 174). We know today, of course, that the whorls and arches of a criminal's fingerprints are most individual, but the FBI still asks us to recognize these culprits by way of the faces we see in the post office.

At the same time, we tend to devalue the face as mere facade, a false front or superficial covering of what is actually the case. Psychologically, this feeling judgment has to do with the modern problem of the persona a Latin word for the mask worn by Roman actors but which also meant the character one played and which eventually signified in English the actual individual or 'person.' Jung used the Latin term to refer to that psychic structure the ego requires to relate to the external world: the persona is the mask with which we go into the world as a 'man' or a 'woman;' as a 'young girl,' a 'physician,' or 'laborer.' Like the no mask, this social face we put on is really impersonal, influenced as much by archetypal roles as by social ones, and certainly not all that we ourselves are. But the persona should be an indirect reflection of our actual being and fulfill at the same time something of what is expected of us by society. We need this important psychic structure to help us adapt and do well in the interview, to help us keep the job; and it is this mask that protects us from too personal a prying into our private selves.

A problem arises, however, when we forget that we are more than what we appear to be, more than the role of a banker (and the social prestige and money this character brings currently but not always), more than an artist (along with the ambivalent social position that accompanies the life of imagination, a state that was otherwise in other periods of history), and something other than cosmetics or surgery can hope to achieve. Indeed, one is supposed to know that beyond the mask is an eternal human being with an individuality as unique as the human face. Jung called this essential psychic structure not the persona, but the Self. The Self is the objective human being; and it is this reality that Japanese no theater evokes with its impersonal objectivity and accompanying archetypal tone of yugen, 'mystery and depth.'


de Vries, Ad. Dictionary of Symbols and Imagery. Amsterdam, 1974.

Edinger, Edward F. Ego and Archetype. New York, 1972.

Kapleau, Philip, ed. The Three Pillars of Zen. Boston, 1967.

Keene, Donald, ed. Twenty Plays of the No Theatre. New York: 1970.

Varley, H. Paul. Japanese Culture. Honolulu, 1984.