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Monica Bethe

Masks have played an important role since prehistoric times in Japanese rituals, festivals and theatrical arts. The finest examples are connected with three performing arts: gigaku, bugaku and the allied forms of and kyōgen (see also Japan: Theatre and performing arts and Japan).

Nearly all Japanese masks are carved from wood, Japanese cypress (hinoki) being the most prevalent, particularly after the 11th century. Other woods include paulownia (kiri) and camphor (kusu), used for many 7th- and 8th-century masks, as well as various hard and soft woods for provincial masks. Almost all the masks are carved out of a single block, starting with the general features. The back is then hollowed out, and, working on front and back simultaneously, the carver opens holes for the eyes, nose and mouth, and finally refines and smooths the face of the mask. In some cases, particularly for the larger masks (...