Japanese masks are associated with Japanese theatre in general and Noh drama in particular. The actors in a Japanese play will wear masks to influence the mood of the actor portraying the character as well as the audience's reaction to the actor and scene. For nonhuman characters, such as demons or ghosts, the use of masks also helps differentiate their presence from that of the human characters in the play. Since many actors in Japanese theatre were men, the masks helped portray female characters. Japanese masks are carved from wood, painted and occasionally accessorised with hair, brass or other decorations.
Japanese masks are carved from wood to keep the finished product lightweight. The weight of the finished mask is essential since an actor may be stuck in the mask for several hours during a performance. An artist will begin with a block of wood, usually about 1 square-foot in size. The wood is carved and shaped with different tools to produce the hollowed-out back for the actor's face and the shape of the front to represent the given character.
Tools used in making Japanese masks include an awl which helps the artist create lines to guide the other tools in shaping the mask. A fine saw is used to cut away portions of the wood block to form a rough shape for the mask. Chisels in different sizes are used to further shape the mask. The entire surface of the mask is smoothed with fine sandpaper and the back of the mask is hollowed out to form the curved shape. The back of the mask is burnt and wax is rubbed on it to protect the inside.
Pieces of brass are cut and shaped to provide eye and teeth details. These pieces are shaped in advance, but not applied until after the painting process is complete. Not all teeth are always covered with brass and some masks do not have an open mouth showing teeth. Demon masks almost always have an open mouth, baring teeth and often fang-like cuspids.
A white paint is applied in many coats to the finished mask before adding other details. The average number of coats of white paint is six, but may be more or less depending on the artist and the desired final appearance. After the white paint is dried flesh-tones or other colours may be mixed in with white paint to adjust the final coat or two to produce a natural flesh appearance. Other shades of the flesh tone are added to the top layers of the painted mask to create shading and add a realistic appearance.
Gold dust may be used to detail the mask before it is finished. This is applied to the teeth that show but are not covered by brass, as well as the horns on demon masks. Hair is painted using black, usually, and sometimes real hair is attached to the mask using horse hair or other substitute to create the desired effect. Facial details are done with a fine brush, adding lines around the eyes and hair.
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