Art vs tradition in Japanese mask-making

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Mona Lisa and Ko-Omote, both masks by Bidou Yamaguchi

Bidou Yamaguchi is a mask-maker hoping to revolutionize a six-centuries old tradition.

Yamaguchi, whose work is on display at Carleton College’s art gallery as part of larger exhibition on Japanese theater, is a master in his field. He creates masks for the Hōshō school of Noh theater in Tokyom, one of five such schools in the nation, each with it’s own very distinctive styles and traditions.

Bidou1.jpgThe history of Japanese Noh theater goes back six centuries, and yet in that time, very little has changed. The rules of performance are strict, with archetypal characters; attending a Noh performance is considered a past-time for the upper class, similar to opera in the United States.

Noh performances traditionally incorporate masks into costumes of the different characters, with exaggerated faces depicting old men, young beauties, and evil demons. They’re made from cypress wood, seashell, lacquer and sometimes hemp and horse hair.

As the theater has remained virtually unchanged, so has its masks. Yamaguchi, speaking through a translater (a Carleton art history major, Ziliang Liu) says while he’s considered a great artist in his country, he feels like he and his contemporaries have been forced into being little more than technicians.

The Noh mask makers, what we do today, we’re copying originals from other periods. Every one would say the best mask is the original, and each maker will say they can never achieve the brilliance of the original artist.

As a member of the Hōshō schoolm Yamaguchi has exclusive access to the school’s original masks.

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O-Beshimi, by Bidou Yamaguchi

While Yamaguchi’s mastery of his art form is evident in his work, he felt called to challenge himself, to work with less traditional subject matter. And so he began making masks as sculptural pieces, drawing inspiration from iconic works of western art that date back to around the time Noh theater was taking form. He made masks of women pictured in paintings by Edvard Munch, Amadeo Modigliani, and Johannes Vermeer.

Yet while he’s been making these masks for several years now, Yamaguchi has yet to show his work in Japan. That will happen this May, and he admits to being nervous about public reaction.

I’m speculating as to what the response will be. Tradition is very important in Japan, so I expect some people will reject the work, or be upset by it.

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Jeanne, by Bidou Yamaguchi, after a painting by Amadeo Modigliani

While Yamaguchi doesn’t have much freedom to pursue his own work, he believes that a recent shift in power at the Hōshō school may present an opportunity for change.

Tradition should not be just a matter of copying the past, but to add something before passing it on to the next generation. It’s up to the next generation to decide whether they want to keep it or not.

Yamaguchi says he feels in some sense as though he’s the only artist in the field of Noh mask-making. He wishes he and other mask-makers felt free to incorporate their own style and ideas into their work:

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Okina, by Bidou Yamaguchi

Yamaguchi’s masks are part of the Carleton College’s The Art of Sight, Sound and Heart, which runs through March 9. Yamaguchi will be in Minneapolis on Monday, February 21 to give a talk at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.

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