Wed, Sep 16, 2020

Japanese noh mask of a sad woman’s face returns to the stage after 120-year hiatus

(Photo courtesy of National Noh Theatre)
By Tatsuhiro Morishige / The Yomiuri Shimbun

A noh mask returned to the stage after an at least 120-year hiatus, used in a performance at the National Noh Theatre in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, on Sept. 2.

A shakume-type mask that depicts a sad woman’s face, the piece is believed to have been made in the middle of the Edo period (1603-1867), and is kept at the Seikado Bunko Art Museum in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo. It is very rare for a mask to be lent out for a performance by a museum, whose main purpose is to collect, preserve and exhibit pieces of art. Curators generally want to avoid the risk of damage, which could easily happen on stage.

Nevertheless, museum director Motoaki Kono decided to lend the mask. It belongs to a collection originally owned by the Mizoguchi family, rulers of the Shibata feudal clan that controlled part of today’s Niigata Prefecture.

“Originally, noh masks were not pieces of art, and I thought it would be all right to use it on stage if the opportunity arose,” Kono said.

The shakume-type mask that was lent for the performance of “Adachigahara” at the National Noh Theatre (Yomiuri Shimbun photo)
The mask has been carefully kept at the Seikado Bunko Art Museum in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo. (Yomiuri Shimbun photo)

Yanosuke Iwasaki, founder of the Seikado and second president of the Mitsubishi group, one of the largest corporations in Japan, loved noh plays. He purchased the Mizoguchi family’s noh mask collection 120 years ago.

The collection of 67 masks has never been shown to the public, but is scheduled for its first exhibit from Oct. 13 in “The Elegance of Noh World.” The mask was lent out in connection with this planned exhibition.

Kanze Yoshimasa in “Adachigahara” (Photo courtesy of National Noh Theatre)

The Sept. 2 play is titled “Adachigahara,” and is based on a legend that features a man-eating female demon. Kanze Yoshimasa played the lead role, known as shite, and performed in the shakume mask.

Museum officials said the mask is extremely well preserved. “We didn’t restore it or do any other special work before it was used,” one official said.

After about an hour on stage, Kanze Yoshimasa changed into a haori coat and hakama trousers to meet with director Kono and return the mask. “The mask is in a beautiful state,” he said, “It felt so natural on stage that I forgot [it was a piece of art].”

“I was given a precious opportunity,” he said.

 Museum director Kono watched the play, afterward saying happily, “When [Kanze] Yoshimasa wore the noh mask and danced, it looked refreshed and brilliant.”

There are no clear records about how the mask was used in the past, but it has definitely not been on a noh stage for at least 120 years.

I also watched the performance. Was I just imagining it, or did the mask actually look slightly happy as it was shown to the public after so many years? It was also wonderful that the mask looked more beautiful and whiter than when I had seen it close-up.

Kanze Yoshimasa, right, returned the mask to Seikado Bunko Art Museum Director Motoaki Kono after the performance. (Yomiuri Shimbun photo)

The shakume mask will be exhibited with other masks from the collection during the museum’s special exhibition through Dec. 6.

(From The Japan News Sept. 16 issue)

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