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What Is a Hannya Mask?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated May 23, 2024
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A hannya mask is a type of Japanese mask used in Noh theatre. The mask is recognizable by its twin-horned and angry visage. It is used to represent the tortured spirits of women wronged by their husbands and not, contrary to popular opinion, demons. The masks are used in plays such as Aoi no Ue, Dojoji, and Momijigari. They have also become the inspiration for tattoos known as a hannya tattoo.

Noh is a type of classical Japanese theatre that incorporates traditional plays, music and lavish costumes. The art form originates from the Muromachi Period of Japanese history and is regulated by the Iemoto code. This means that most Noh plays come from a list of regular plays and are performed according to the code’s rules. A typical Noh performance includes between two and five Noh plays. Each play is separated from the next by a short comical performance known as a Kyogen.

All actors in a Noh play are male and wear masks to represent each character. During the Muromachi period, there were approximately 80 masks, but by the end of the 20th century, there were over 200 types. These masks are divided into six broad categories: elders, old men, males, females, demons (kishin), and ghosts/spirits (onryo).

The hannya mask is a type of onryo mask. There are many types of onryo masks including ayakeshi, yamamba, and yase-otoko. While onryo masks can represent both genders, the hannya mask is solely for female characters who have been wronged by their loved one or husband. Hannya are considered by many to be the most recognizable of Noh masks.

Each hannya mask is carved out of a block of wood or is made using materials such as lacquer, cloth, clay or paper. Papier-mâché makes a cheaper alternative to the expensive traditional masks for events such as teaching activities or costume parties. Artisans who have been making such masks for generations make most masks used in Noh plays. This means that many hannya masks are passed from generation to generation much in the same way as actors inherit the stage names of their predecessors or mentors.

A wooden hannya mask is first carved out of the block of wood in a rough form, and then it is carved more precisely. The mask is designed so that it is smaller than the actor’s face because it is considered good in Japan for the actor’s chin to be visible. Once the artist is happy with the shape, he or she then prepares the inside of the mask by first burning it and then plastering it. The artist then applies layers of paint, polishing and extras such as gold dust to the face side of the mask.

Hanging a hannya mask, like any other Noh mask, is an important ritual in itself. The mask is the last part of the costume to be put on. Once clothed the actor goes into a mirror room where he faces the mask. The mask is then hung on the actor. In Japanese, this means using the verb kakeru meaning, “to hang,” which implies the placement of the mask turns the actor into the character he is portraying.

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Discussion Comments
By ddljohn — On Sep 13, 2014

@SteamLouis-- This is true. One of the most popular Japanese plays where a hannya mask is used is Aoi No Ue. It is about the jealous spirit of a mistress who possesses the body of her lover's wife for revenge. The spirit is then exorcised from the body.

By SteamLouis — On Sep 12, 2014

@turquoise-- Actually, the explanation I've heard about the hannya character is that it's a female who turned into a demon due to torment. Some say that it's due to jealousy over a loved one.

The hannya mask is truly a piece of art. I saw it when I visited Japan. I did not see a play, but a friend showed me the masks and the meanings behind them. The amazing part of this mask is that when you look at it straight, it looks very angry and upset. It looks dangerous. But if you look at it from underneath, it actually looks sad. The mouth has been carved in such a way that it appears to give a slightly different expression based on how one looks at it.

This is done intentionally because it represents both the anger and the sadness of this demon.

By turquoise — On Sep 12, 2014

This is so interesting. So the hannya mask is a mask of a ghost or spirit, but that ghost is female? Does this mean that these are the spirits of women who were hurt or killed by their husbands?

I've never seen a Japanese play before but it sounds very intriguing. I hope that I get the opportunity to see it sometime.

Has anyone here seen a Japanese play with a hannya character?

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