By John Dorfman
Rare and intricately carved, Shinto shrine masks personify the spirits of Japan’s ancient faith.
There is something inherently uncanny about masks. The placement of a false face over a real face, the displacement of identity, the fixed expression, all conspire to unsettle or even frighten the beholder. The sense of the weird is especially strong in masks that were intended to represent unearthly beings and to allow humans to temporarily assume the identity of denizens of the spirit world during religious or magical ceremonies. Prominent among these are the carved wooden masks of nature-worshipping Shinto, Japan’s most ancient religion.
Japan is rich in mask traditions. Masks were originally used for dance dramas known as gigaku and bugaku, which were performed in the aristocratic courts. Gigaku masks, which cover the entire head and have no moving parts, date back to the Nara period (710–794) and surviving examples are among the oldest masks in the world. Bugaku masks have moving parts and were worn by dancers starting in the Heian period (794–1185). Most familiar to modern Westerners are the masks worn by actors in the Noh plays, a form of classical musical theater based on Japanese history and myth. Noh influenced the even better-known Kabuki genre, which dispensed with masks in favor of makeup which gives a mask-like quality to the human face itself.
According to Jerry Solomon, a Los Angeles dealer and collector who specializes in Asian and tribal art, Shinto shrine masks are the “missing link” between bugaku and and Noh masks. Noh plays, he observes, were first performed in shrines in the 14th and 15th centuries and then moved into the theater. Shrine masks are not widely known or understood; as a category, they don’t have a formal nomenclature. Solomon, who has been collecting them enthusiastically since the late 1970s, calls them jinjamen (shrine masks) or tsuina or oni (demon) masks. Strictly speaking, though, they are not all demonic; they represent spirits good, bad and neutral, known in Shinto as kami.
They key to understanding these masks, explains Solomon, is that religiously speaking they are not Buddhist-influenced and culturally speaking they are purely Japanese. Bugaku drama had elements imported from the Korean royal court, and the gigaku was influenced by the cultures of China and even Central Asia. Shinto is a purely Japanese religion, and though it has coexisted harmoniously with Buddhism since around the 10th century, it has kept its purity. Shinto objects are to be found in Buddhist temples, but there are no Buddhist objects in Shinto shrines.
“All Shinto ceremonies,” says Solomon, “have three basic functions: First, they call the kami down from the heavens. Then they march them around the shrines, give them a festival and ask them to do things for them, such as getting rid of pestilence or other things that are bothering people. In the masquerade, the mask-wearer is imbued with the spirit of the mask; it’s very shamanistic.” In this regard, the Shinto mask ceremonies resemble the masked ritual dance-dramas of the Pueblo Indians in the Southwestern U.S. “Finally,” says Solomon, “they get rid of them, because you don’t want spirits hanging around. They’re good guys, but they’re still spirits, and you don’t want the upper world in your normal-world life.” Shrine masks are also worn by priests in exorcism ceremonies, to help drive out harmful spirits. Solomon recalls that when some Japanese art dealers saw four or five shrine masks hanging on the wall of his apartment, “they were shocked and backed away. They didn’t consider them art objects; they considered them to be something you shouldn’t have hanging in your house!”
Solomon, on the other hand, sees them very much as art objects. “They’re very expressive and unique,” he says, “created with a lot of skill, with a terrific carving technique.” They were hewn from hard woods, Japanese laurel (kusanoki) or Japanese cypress (hinoki), which were then varnished. “The patinas are incredible,” says Solomon. “They’ve been through hundreds of years of exposure and use.” He contrasts them with African masks, which also saw hard use in rituals but tend to be heavily marked by dirt, smoke and soot. The Japanese, known for meticulousness, carefully stored their masks in tied silk or cotton bags—which in turn were sometimes put into boxes—on shelves in the treasure houses of shrines and temples (kura). As a result, most of the extant shrine masks, which mainly date to the Muromachi period (1336–1573), are in remarkably good condition.
Another thing that distinguishes shrine masks is their individuality. “The canons for Noh are very strict,” Solomon points out. Each mask represents a stock character in the drama, “and every single one, by character or category, looks the same. Whereas shrine masks are free interpretations of spirits and demons. Every one is unique.” The best Shinto masks were “vigorous, strong compositions made by great sculptors,” many of whom also created famous works in Buddhist temples. The iconography of the masks is still somewhat obscure even to experts, though it is known that the attitude of the lips is highly significant; Solomon explains that the open and closed mouth represent, respectively, the first and last elements of the Sanskrit sacred word Aum.
The art of the shrine mask is still alive in Japan today, though the medium is now papier-mâché. For collecting purposes, the Japanese tend to prefer Noh masks, says Solomon, because they are “sweet and easy to get along with. Shrine masks are powerful, not pleasant. They’re not ugly but they are scary.” Which is as it should be, he insists: “You need good guys on your side to get rid of the bad guys!”