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The Origins, Use, And Photography Of Japanese Noh Masks

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Japanese theater has a long history dating back to the 14th century. Of the three main types of traditional, Japanese theatre —  Kabuki, Noh, and Bunraku — Noh is the oldest form. Noh is a form of theatrical expression that involves the use of highly stylized masks by the performers. 

What is a Noh mask?

A Noh mask is typically made from hand-carved wood, clay, or even layers of paper, much like today's paper mache. They are finished with paint and a coating of high gloss lacquer. The most unique aspect of a Noh mask is that, at first glance, it appears to have a simple, stylized face painted on its surface but, as the talented performers subtlely tilt their head, you realize that a smile can be seen from the altered angle. 

What is the Noh mask used for?

Noh masks are used to cover the faces of the performers in Japanese Noh theater. While the performance is much more controlled and stylized than Westerners are used to, the Noh masks can transport the audience to another place and time in this centuries-old theater tradition. In fact, it is said that Noh actors put on their masks in the dressing room and, once on, the actor and the Noh mask "can never be parted."

What is the difference between Kabuki and Noh?

While both are forms of traditional, Japanese theater, Noh is a serious re-telling of Japanese myths and history with tight, stylized movements. Kabuki, on the other hand, is the comic relief in Japanese theater. It is a light-hearted form that showcases dance, drama, and comedy with flamboyant costumes, over-the-top make-up, and extravagant wigs. 

How is Noh photography an extension of traditional Japanese theater?

Just as the actor can tilt a Noh mask ever so slightly to reveal a different perspective to the audience, so can the photographer of traditional, Japanese Noh theater reveal another side of the performer. The subtle change of a camera angle, a picture's composition, or even the use of bokeh to capture a new vision of the mask extends the magic of Noh theater a little further.

Why is Noh photography so popular?

Noh photography lets the viewer see details of Noh masks up close. This allows theater-goers to experience the performance again only more intimately.

While Noh theater may be a traditional and conservative form of Japanese theater, it is a valuable art form meant to be enjoyed by the next generation both live and in photographs. For more information about traditional Noh mask photography, contact a professional photographer.