Noh is the earliest theatrical art form in Japan and is still performed today. Developed in the 14th century, it often focuses on tales in which a supernatural being has transformed into a human and is narrated from the hero’s perspective. A core facet of the costumes is highly stylized Noh masks, which represent characters like deities, ghosts, and other figures, subtly emphasizing expression and emotion as their wearers turn in the light. A short documentary by Process X explores how the craft of carving the props by hand is kept alive by artisans like Mitsue Nakamura.
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Starting with a block of Japanese cypress, Nakamura chisels the round face, eyes, nose, and teeth. Coated with a lacquer traditionally derived from crushed seashells mixed with glue, the form is then dried before being pierced on each side with a hot awl to tie strings through. The artist mixes pigments by hand to add color to the features, including blackening the teeth in a practice known as ohaguro, a fashion that was popular in Japan during the Heian period.
For some families and institutions, Noh carries a timeless and important legacy, and many historically significant and valuable masks, such as those made by the 15th-century Konparu school, are preserved in collections. “The term ‘face like a Noh mask’ is often used as a metaphor for expressionlessness, but the major characteristic of the world of Noh is that it expresses human feelings and inner thoughts rather than storytelling,” says Nakamura in a statement. “The better the mask is, the more the expression changes with a slight difference in angle.”
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