Japanese Noh masks
Obeshimi (demon mask), wood, Japan, mid 19th century.
A few months ago I visited the very inspiring Musée du quai Branly in Paris. I recommend it to anybody who is interested in anthropology or ethnography. Or disconcerting masks and dolls, because they have tons of those. They’ve published a great book called Masks: Masterpieces from the musée du quai Branly. The text is by the splendidly named Yves Le Fur, with photos by Sandrine Expilly. I’m going to reproduce a few scans, but the book is worth a look if– as mentioned previously– you’re one of those creepy mask people like me. I’ll also be sharing some of my own photos from the collection. All the ones by me will be clearly marked, otherwise credit goes to Expilly.
This time I’m concentrating on Noh (能) masks from Japan. Noh is the extremely formalised theatre that originated in Japan about seven hundred years ago. Some of the masks are used to play different characters from the repertory. A few are cleverly designed to change their expression depending upon the direction of lighting or the angle of the performer’s head. These masks are usually treated with great respect by the performers. The Obeshimi mask above is used in five different plays. Mostly it is used to represent a demon, but it can also play Dairokuten, one of the ten kings of the hells.
See the first post about Japanese kamishibai (paper theatre) in the 1930s and the previous post about WWII kamishibai for more information and commentary about the origins and context of these images.
A postwar ‘Golden Bat’ serial. Nazo, the Emperor of the Universe, is apparently an overweight heterochromial cat with a black bag over his head. Sort of like a cross between David Bowie, the Baader Meinhof gang, and Bagpuss. Actually this sounds fabulous, but who knew? The expression of Nazo’s captive says it all: OH REALLY?
‘Mystery Train’, late 1940s or early 1950s. Mystery Train? I’ll say. Why did somebody in a man-sized glove costume just get on? Quick, put your bag down so he doesn’t sit next to you.
See the first post about Japanese kamishibai (paper theatre) for more information and commentary about the origins and context of these images.
Here we move into the 1940s, WWII and the dodgy, overly-positive world of propaganda. Propaganda is almost by definition absurd and deceptive; if it wasn’t so cognitively dissonant and detached from observed reality then we’d just call it informative or documentarian. But there’s still something particularly disturbing about the hijacking of a medium intended mainly for children. The slides shown here are from How to Build a Home Air Raid Shelter and from Kintaro the Paratrooper. The latter is a militaristic rewrite of the traditional story about Momotoro the Peach Boy, who joined up with animal friends to defend Japan from invading demons. You can see what they did there, obviously.
Kintaro the Paratrooper. Here come the British soldiers. Their tank seems a bit wee, but perhaps that’s intentional. I’m British but I still can’t really object to this racist caricature of us with our stupid shorts and our sunburned ears and noses. Stereotypes all have an original.
Kintaro throws a grenade at the British tank. Kawaiiiiiiiiiiiiiii.
Cry of the Andes, episode 1. 1930s.
This is the first of several posts about Japanese kamishibai (paper theatre), a popular form of storytelling that began in the 1930s, peaked in the post-war/American occupation period, and more or less died out with the rise of Japan as a modern, technologically developed country. The material is all from Eric P. Nash’s great book Manga Kamishibai. As usual, out of respect for the author and the publisher (and also to piss off the imbeciles who are always going on about printed books being dead trees and obsolete, everything’s online now, blah blah blah) I’ll hopefully be posting just enough to arouse your interest without coming anywhere close to making it pointless to buy or borrow the book.
Kamishibaiya (paper theatre storytellers) would roll up to a street corner on their bicycles, which also supported a butai– a miniature wooden theatre into which the illustrated boards for the stories could be slid in and out. These boards were about 14 inches by 10. Until WWII each story set and board were unique because they were inked and coloured by hand using watercolour and opaque tempera paints, then lacquered and waxed to protect them from the weather. The boards provided a low-tech form of slideshow animation, but of course what really brought the stories to life were the storytellers. At one point kamishibai was such a cultural touchstone that when television was introduced to Japan in 1953, it was sometimes referred to as denki kamishibai: electric paper theatre.
The examples shown here are from a 1930s series called Cry of the Andes. It’s a sort-of Western adventure, though obviously set in Peru and filtered through the distinctly Eastern perspective of a nation that had never seen (or been) cowboys.
Next time: paper theatre for children takes a weird and sinister turn during WWII. Cute boar soldiers bayonetting captives for the Emperor, and so forth.
Cry of the Andes, episode 3. In true Japanese style they decided to jazz the boring old Western up a bit by giving the villain a crazy mask, a swirling cloak and a random bat symbol on his forehead.