The Magnificent Masks of Noh (ancient Japanese drama)


Man - Hito


woman - On'na



This magnificent pair of antique Noh masks on was hand-painted on silk and framed in brass with hanging hardware attached.

The artist and age are presently unknown, but one can tell by the aging of the silk that it is both rare and well sought after by collectors. You won't find many like this set, a must have for any Asian art enthusiast.

These two are framed in brass and ready to hang in your museum, or for private display and both are in excellent condition especially for their age.

Originally purchased from an estate sale, years ago, now we are putting the pair on the auction block.

Historical research is still in progress. If you have any info on them or the author (please see signatures page) please email us (below).

Current estimated value solely based on age and artistic worth is well over $1000US or 900Yen.

* More details at bottom of page.

We are currently auctioning this item on EBay and taking outside offers throughout the US looking for a welcome home for this pair of art Pieces.

Thank you for visiting!

The Masks of Japan (historical excerpt)

Masks are prevalent in many cultures. It is our human nature to wish to transcend our own existence and masks provide a vehicle to make that transformation. The mask is the perfect medium to disguise our true nature, if only momentarily. Recently there were two exhibitions in here in Los Angeles, one about festivals, the other about the art and artifacts of noh and kyogen plays. One common element in both is the use of masks, which prompted this quarter's article: The Masks of Japan.

Throughout Japan's history, masks have been used in rituals and performances. The performer dons a mask representing a certain individual, hero, deity, devil, ghost, or legendary animal, depending on the ritual or performance. Masks have been used in Japan since the Jomon period (10,000 BC- 300BC). Some of these masks were formed from clay, others were made of cloth. It is unclear as to the use of these masks other than they played a part in some forms of magic or shamanistic rituals of those times. They may have been used to cover the faces of the dead or used as talismans to deflect malevolent spirits. There is some speculation that perhaps they were votive offerings used to treat medical problems. The subsequent Yayoi (300BC -AD 300) and Kofun periods (300 - 552) appear to be a slack period from the lack of artifacts related to masks. There is a mask fragment that has been dated to the Kofun period. The fragment is a different wood and constructed differently compared to later gigaku masks. So it is unlikely that these periods were completely devoid of masks.

The masks that we are the most familiar with are those used in dance, theater, festivals, and Shinto and Buddhist rituals. Many of these masks were used in ritualized and religious traditions, specifically Buddhist, which were brought from the mainland of Asia. Masks are made from a number of different materials such as: clay, dry lacquer, cloth, paper and wood. The majority of masks are carved from wood and are painted with a layer of lacquer, and most are primed with a kaolin clay cover with polychromatic pigments. The construction of masks has changed very little over the last five hundred years. The following categories represent the evolution of Japanese masks.

Noh Masks

Noh masks are the ones with which we are most familiar. Noh dramas evolved from the traditions of sarugaku (sangaku), dengaku, and other folk agricultural rituals (China).These included acrobatics, juggling, miming and conjuring. These intermingled with dances and rituals at shrines and temples. The dance and performance arts associated with agricultural traditions also merged. By the 11th century, comedic sketches were incorporated into the set of performances and the acrobatics were phased out the repertory. As the performance art evolved, music arrangements, words and gestures began to be standardized. By the end of the 13th century, guilds began to be established, which would form the basis of the noh tradition. By the Muromachi period, the dramatic plays became noh plays, and the comedic plays became the comic interludes known as kyogen. Noh and kyogen became very popular through the patronage of Kan'ami and Zeami (the leading proponents of noh at that time) by the Ashikaga Shogun Yoshimitsu. Patronage of noh continued with the successive rulers of Japan.

It is safe to assume that the associated with noh and kyogen followed a similar path. A tradition that grew out of evolution of masks and it is still part of the noh performance repertory called Shikisaban. The masks used in okinamai exhibit the first signs of the formation of the noh mask. It is evident that these masks which evolved from the foreign influenced gigaku and bugaku masks had been transformed into a uniquely Japanese design. Four types of masks are used in okinamai, three of which have a detached lower jaw which is fastened to the upper portion with silk cords. Those three are Okina, Sanbaso, and Chichinojo. It is thought that perhaps these masks evolved from certain bugaku masks that also had detached jaws. Okina and Sanbaso both have similar carvings and expressions. When the mask is white it is Okina and when painted black, it's Sanbaso. There are existing Okina masks which date back to the Kamakura period (1185-1332). Okina and Sanbaso at some point became the predominate characters in okinamai, while the other characters and therefore the masks ceased to be used. These early Okina masks, while not technically noh masks are obviously the predecessors of noh masks. Okina masks exhibit a definite folk quality that the early noh masks first displayed. All masks became very stylized and standardized during the Edo period (1615-1867).

There are about 80 different masks that are essential for most of the noh plays. But there are well over 200 different masks The typical noh mask is smaller than the face. They are usually shallow in construction and carved from hinoki wood. The masks are carved in such a manner that the expression of the face changes as the shadow and light change with the slightest movement of the head. And the technique of laying silk across the wooden likeness is very sought-after hand-made tradition. This feature is important in noh theater since the mask must reflect the mood of the character at that moment in time. But the most important characteristic displayed in every noh mask is its otherworldly quality. It is that quality that cannot be duplicated by an actor's own face or through make-up. Only the main character of the play, called the shite, and his companions wear masks, peripheral characters do not. The shite also did not wear a mask when portraying livings persons. Noh masks are variations of gods, demons, spirits, and young middle aged and old men and women. There are many plays in which the main character changes into another mask which is supposed to represent the character's true nature. It is the shite who chooses which mask to use for the performance. Once the decision is made, the rest of the costuming is based on that mask. Choosing the mask is a very important process since it dictates the interpretation the shite places in the character. The mask supersedes the actor's individuality or any interpretation he personally would put into the performance.


Ko-omote literally means small face. This mask was one of the early masks in the noh repertory, mostly due to the fact that men needed women's masks more than they needed men's masks to pull off the performance. It shows the beautiful face of a young woman whose nature is calm and collected. The face is reflective of the classic Heian beauty: eyebrows are shaved, hair is neatly groomed and in place, and her teeth are blackened. This face shows a woman coming of age yet, idealizes the naiveté of youth. There many variations to these masks, where cheeks are made fuller and lips are parted more. The hair placement is important: the three strands of hair do not overlap which is an important convention in ko-omote masks. They represent a calm psyche. The ko-omote can exhibit a higher degree of sensuality dependent on the features carved and painted into the mask. From this base, masks can be carved to show an increase in age by setting the eyes deeper. Other women masks are the shakumi and fukai, which depict middle aged women. Eye openings also reflect age, young woman masks have square openings, older woman masks have half circle openings.


Otoko masks are young man masks. This particular one is called waka-otoko and represents a youth who is afforded the benefits of a high status in life, although the hair painted on the sides indicates that he is not aristocracy. Most likely this mask would be used in plays that require a young man of determination, perhaps a warrior. There are also numerous variations on the young men masks. Some show a more aristocratic bearing. As with young women masks, otoko can show the aging and life experience process by setting the eyes deeper and the use of more deepening lines in the brow and mouth. Masks were not worn for male roles in the early stages of noh. However as young and middle aged male masks were developed with their otherworldly characteristics they fit perfectly with the nature of noh.

Dimensions: approx. 30' l X 30" w X 3" deep before packaging (including large, custom, brass frame)

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