Japanese masks and their uses

The Japanese interest in masks probably dates from the Jōmon period (about 10,000-300 BC). Mask-like objects made from shells with holes cut for eyes and nose, as well as crude pottery masks may have been used for religious ritual. In the later Kofun period (about 300 - mid-6th century) many haniwa (clay tomb guardians) had delicately modelled faces.

The arrival of Buddhism in Japan in the sixth century brought many semi-religious and secular activities using masks. These soon mingled with native Shintō rites and popular traditions. Gigaku masked dance drama probably originated in the Korean kingdom of Kudara. Early performances were wild and bawdy, showing foreign influences from countries along the Silk Route as well as Indian Hinduism and Buddhism. Unlike most Japanese masks, the Gigaku masks fitted around the whole head and face. They were made either of painted wood or kanshitsu, a combination of hemp cloth and lacquer. They often had hair attached. Gigaku died out by the Edo period (1600-1868). Another type of masked dance called kagura evolved from popular Chinese performing arts called sarugaku and dengaku. The tone of kagura dances range from solemn to humorous and the masks are likewise extremely varied.

Bugaku dance also used lively masks, sometimes with moving chins and eyes. The dance was more static and abstract, often representing the passing of the seasons. It was taken up by the imperial court and Shintō shrines. Bugaku was accompanied by the Gagaku orchestra which also came to Japan from China and Korea. Instead of the simple flute and drums suitable for processional performance, Gagaku used a wider range of stringed and wind instruments with drums.

Perhaps the most well-known of all Japanese masks are the subtly expressive carved and painted wooden Nō masks which seem to change their mood with the movement of the actor.

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