Jacqueline Wee: Noh Masks and Woodblock Prints

Masks are creepy.  I think that’s a fairly agreed-upon opinion.  And yet, somehow I’ve been spending four hours of my Mondays, almost every week, surrounded by them.  My Monday activities started about halfway through last semester, at the beginning of November.  After my host mother’s coworker heard that I was taking a class on Noh theater, she invited me to her house, where her father and one other person were learning to carve Noh masks from a teacher.  Being an arts-and-crafts person, and having always been fascinated with wood carving, I agreed to learn Noh mask carving.

The classroom is an extra room in an acquaintance’s house.  The other two students, who I’ll call Tail-san and Village-san, and teacher, Inside-sensei are all ojiisan (grandpas) who have been friends for a very long time.  On top of gathering at Tail-san’s house every Monday to hack away at some wood, they also play mahjong and basketball at other times in other places during the week.  Going to my Noh mask class might be my favorite part about being in Japan.  A lot of people who hear about my latest hobby give me a weird look when I mention that it involves hanging out with grandpas almost every week.  They go, isn’t that…boring?  But it’s far from that.  The three of them are some of the most interesting people I’ve met since coming to Japan, and having lived for quite a deal longer than I have, they have tons of stories and knowledge of things I’ve never even heard of before.  Also, since they’re good friends with each other, despite being “old”—a word I don’t buy anyway since I consider age more of a mental thing than something purely decided by number of years one has been alive—they’re always cracking jokes and displaying their competitive side.  For example, they’ll pull out a scale and argue about who has carved his mask thinner and lighter.  Or who has managed to make his mask look older and more weathered.  Every minute spent in that classroom with those three is fun, and I feel like I’ve slowly become a part of the group.

Also, although it’s not really directly related to mask carving, the actual setting of my lessons is also lively.  Since I’m there from 12:30pm to 4:30 pm, in between carving, we take lunch and snack breaks.   Sitting around the floor eating various Japanese snacks with tea, I listen to stories about Japanese customs and traditions, as well as hearing about everyone’s families and histories.  Tail-san’s wife is a talented cook, and everything she makes is delicious, from the familiar and comfortable oden to the chewy and flavorful boar meat, which I tried for the first time last week.  They also live in the countryside, in a traditional house that’s more than a hundred years old.  Between coming and going to the classroom, I walk through the well-groomed garden, and even going to the toilet brings me through the wooden corridor bordered by sliding doors.  On top of everything else, by going to mask class, my comprehension of Kansai-ben has gotten infinitely better.  When I first started going to class, I could barely understand anything that anyone was saying, but now I can get through with very few understanding problems.  And I’ve picked up some phrases that I would have never been taught in any Japanese classroom.

From the combination of my Noh class and mask carving lessons, I have learned a number of things.  First of all, there’s a set number of mask types, and in the world of Noh, there is no such thing as original masks.  Of course since every mask is handmade, each one is unique in some way, but in general it follows strict mask standards.  There are even stencil-type tools that one carves the mask to fit into, and if carved properly, every curve on every mask of the same type should be the same.  For example, probably the most famous and commonly used mask type is called the Ko omote, which is supposed to represent the face of a young girl.  If you saw five ko omote masks carved by five different people, at first glance they would look exactly the same.  At the second and third glance, they’d probably still look the same.  But after staring at them for a while and getting accustomed to the subtleties of the masks, you’d start to notice a few slight differences.  The angle of the eyes might be just the slightest bit sharper on one, giving a subtle impression of slyness.  Or the corners of the mouth might lift up a little bit more on one mask, imbuing the expression with a tint of playfulness.  But take away the other masks to compare against, and you might as well have imagined the differences.

Although I started off with “masks are creepy,” I don’t actually think so anymore.  Well, for the most part.  We recently started painting our masks, and seeing multiple pure white faces lined up on the floor is still a little alarming.  But that part aside, now they’ve become like any other product of hard work.  To me, my mask is sort of pretty, rather cute, and something I’m quite proud of. I’ve also gotten a little better acquainted with traditional Japanese materials.  The tools used to carve masks are hard to find even in Japan, and I’ve never seen them in America.  They come in three general shapes, flat, curved, and diagonal, and in all different sizes.  After one finishes carving, paints the mask, but the base coat of white paint isn’t even paint at all.  It’s called gofun, and it’s used not just for masks, but also in some traditional Buddhist sculptures.  It starts out as a white powder, ground up oyster shells, and after being mixed with animal glue that resembles gelatin, called nikawa, it becomes a somewhat paint-like suspension.  Although I occasionally paint and draw, I’ve never worked with such materials in America.

After many months, I am close to finishing my first mask.  Mask making takes a long time.  A very, very long time.  But it’s a rewarding process, and through it, I’ve made friends that I wouldn’t have otherwise crossed paths with.  In contrast to my other main, wood-related, activity for the semester, woodblock printing, I’d say that I’ve found a closer community in Noh masks.  But I can where the difference comes from.

My woodblock printing class was twice a month from January to March, meaning that it only met six times, two hours per session.  I also got started slightly late, so I really only got to attend a fraction of the lessons.  The classroom was on the third floor of an art building.  Although I really love woodblock printing and think it’s very fun, I do much better in small, intimate group settings, so the structure of the class made it hard for me to make any particularly close friends.  It also didn’t help that the class met so few times and ended so soon.  For outgoing people, I think classes with one teacher and many students work fine, but since I find it uncomfortable to approach unknown people and start talking, I couldn’t get past just the friendly “hello, how are you.”  To each his own, I suppose.

I did learn some techniques and information about woodblock printing that aren’t really spelled out in books.  And since the students outnumbered the teacher, sometimes I got help from fellow students who had dealt with the same problems and figured out ways around them.  I got to learn from an experienced expert as well as normal students who had some genius tips of their own.  During these moments, I could feel the semblance of community forming, but the end of the woodblock class came too fast, and I didn’t get to see any further development.  Had it kept going, despite my slightly asocial nature, I think I might have been able to make some good friends, similar to those in my Noh mask class.  Ironically, pretty much everyone in my woodblock class was also an ojiisan.  I keep being told that I have old-person interests.  I guess it might be true.

My advice to anyone studying abroad in Japan or anywhere is to definitely find a place where one belongs and to continue going for as long as possible.  I feel most part of a community at my Noh mask class, and I feel like my closest friends are there too.  And I think part of the reason I feel so at-home in my mask class is because I got started fairly early and continued going for nearly two semesters.  For the same reason, I think I wasn’t nearly as comfortable at my woodblock printing class.  But above all, I think it’s important to take part in an activity that’s interesting.  Since I like carving both masks and prints, attending class was always fun.  And because I was surrounded by others with similar interests, I always had something in common with the people around me.

3 thoughts on “Jacqueline Wee: Noh Masks and Woodblock Prints

  1. Jacqueline!
    I find it so fascinating that you are creating a piece of art that has escaped change (or so it seems). Now a days everyone wants elements of uniqueness-clothing, music, ways of thinking…the “hipster age” if you will, but I the fact that these Noh masks stay strictly within its tradition is so special.
    Also, making friends with the grandpas sounds like so much fun! They always say exactly what’s on their minds, which is very refreshing since we are around such passive-aggressive people. Hopefully you will keep in touch with them! Is the photo you posted of your mask-in-process? If so, it’s awesome! I can’t wait to see the final product 🙂

    ps. I envy your ability to understand ojiisan kansaiben!

    • Yeah, while the materials used for making a mask have changed sliiiightly due to modern tools and technology, the process and final product has pretty much remained unchanged since Noh mask standards have been set.

      You make a good point about the difference between the current obsession with uniqueness and the strict adherence to standards of masks. Actually when I started carving, I was sort of bummed that the process for what I was going to make had been all mapped out and followed for centuries already. I sort of thought, “aw man, I can’t just carve an original mask?” But as I got to carving, I realized that there’s something kind of therapeutic in following the process and that it’s actually really, really, REALLY hard to get the mask into the right shape and proportions. And also, despite how the mask is the “same” as all the others, it’s hand carved by me, so that in itself makes it original.

      The ojiisans are the best part! They are very straightforward and say exactly what they want to say. One of the best things I heard from one of them was something along the lines of “making masks is fun because you get to create your own cute girls.” I definitely burst out laughing there.

      The photo’s my mask(s) in the works. One is in the very early stages and the other is close to finished. It won’t be done by the CIP talent show, but it’ll be closer to done and up on display!

  2. Your mask is beautiful! I’m so impressed!