Focal Point

May 30, 2007 at 2:06 pm

Stand before this NO theatre mask in the Cincinnati Art Museum's (CAM) newly renovated Asian galleries and you'll look a centuries-old Japanese tradition straight in the eyes.

Carved from Japanese cypress wood and painted, the mask depicts an old man, or maijo, with wrinkled forehead, drooping cheeks and furrowed brow. His hair is pulled back tightly, and his long moustache and beard accent his rectangular open mouth.

No performances originated in the 14th century, when the practice was patronized by the ruling elite, the Ashikaga shogun. With roots in Zen Buddhist aesthetics and philosophy, its style is restrained, minimal and elegant. Plays are performed on a bare stage through mime, dance, music, masks and elaborate costumes. Although NO is not action packed or fast-paced, every gesture and step is pregnant with meaning.

In the 17th century, the Tokugawa shogun decreed there would be no variations in NO performances, so theatre troupes recorded stage directions and established mask and costume types. Today, NO is still performed much as it was 400 years ago.

If the old man's expression seems tortured, it is because of the role he played. NO masks consist of five main character types — gods, men, women, ghosts and demons. This CAM mask represents a fisherman or woodcutter who usually becomes a phantom or tormented soul by the end of the play.

In addition to the old man, two more masks are on view at the museum. A male ghost (kawazu) looks out with an agonized face, gaping mouth and vacant, zombie-like stare. A charming young girl (oto) smiles with squinting eyes and unbelievably plump, dimpled cheeks. These strategically designed NO masks create the subtle illusion of changing facial expressions when the actor tilts his head.

All three masks are on view in the CAM's Asian galleries. They offer a glimpse of an ancient Japanese art form and a sense of what happens on the NO stage.

FOCAL POINT turns a critical lens on a singular work of art. Through Focal Point we slow down, reflect on one work and provide a longer look.