On a recent day off from the circus I had the good fortune to get a glimpse into the spawning ground of the most subtle, compelling and elusive masks of all.
The masks of the Noh theatre.
Through an email introduction made by Theatre of Yugen artistic director Jubilith Moore, I got to spend the day with Hideta Kitazawa, a famed mask maker who is also a gentle soul possessed of a quiet mastery of his art.
I had traded polite emails with him and told him of my desire to see his workshop.
But he had other things in mind.
He wanted, I now realize, to give me the whole enchilada.
And he did.
The order's a little off, but this is the process.
He picked me up at the train station in Matsuda on the outskirts of Tokyo.
After a fantastic Unagi lunch surrounded by the handprints of famous sumatori, we visited Shibamata Taishakuten Daikyu Temple close to his home and the fantastic woodcarvings that adorn it.
Kitazawa-San is a member of a prestigious wood carving family and it is his own ancestors that carved some of these fascinating depictions of the Lotus Sutra that seem to defy the laws of both time and gravity with their 3-D effects and swooping goddesses.
Burning Down The House.
Dragons grin maniacally from every corner (apparently to protect the building from fire Kitazawa tells me) and muscled, sworded guardians glare at every portal, almost daring evil spirits to tempt their wrath.
These were the works of his great great grandfather and you could almost hear their hearts beating beneath the grain of lifeless wood.
We tossed some coins in the metal box, did our Shinto ablutions, and escaped with our heads intact.
This all only partially prepared me to see he and his father's workshop where the evidence of their craftsmanship and care littered the tiny space like jewels in Ali Baba's cave.
The smell of cedar and toil filled the tiny space. Father and son each had their places on the tatami floor where they worked on their various commissions for shrines and festivals.
The chisels were laid out like the ranks of soldiers preparing for a war, each with their own distinct headdress of oiled steel.
(Kitazawa-San told me it was a sword maker who had changed professions to make them- much like Kitazawa himself had rebelled from being a temple carver to make masks.)
No Sandpaper in Sight.
But the true highlight came when he took me back to his own home where he led me up a tiny stairway to a small room cluttered with the detritus of the artist; books, brushes, pigments, blocks of the pungent cedar wood and jars of crushed oyster shells, sheets of ray skin, (for the hilt of an actor's tanto) the ubiquitous chisels (sandpaper is not used, amazing when you see how smooth his final product can be) and along one wall an overflowing closet of masks.
And as he began to share them (many had their own brocade bag/pillow for storage) and as he told little tidbits about each one- I felt the room fill up…
With actors, other mask makers, characters, generations, ghosts, demons, gods- it was overwhelming.
An African, a Spaniard and a Chinese man walk into a bar...
Paper, Wood, Clay.
I saw also the source material (Tilda Swinton, Kate Blanchett, Glenda Jackson et al.) she had sent him.
He seemed to be at a bit of a crossroads on it.
He was concerned that the audience wouldn't understand that she was the same character under a different mask in the 2nd act (the 1st act mask (not pictured) was a sublime creation reminiscent of the Zo Onna masks I have seen but
wholly original with plaintive upturned eyebrows that struck me as pure Cordelia.) and not a different character.
He even seemed to want my advice on the painting of the mask!
He had a rather sun tanned mask that is in contrast with the ivory complexion of the mask of her 1st act Cordelia.
What could I do? I decided as usual to overstep my boundaries and offer my opinion. (I don't even know Ehn's piece) -though I have done Lear three times so I am familiar with the play at least.
He had a picture of a mask that blended both complexions that seemed right to me for a girl that spoke the truth that becomes a woman that becomes a warrior and that seemed to hit the right note.
After meeting his charming wife and soccer-obsessed son he took me back to the train station.
As I rode back to Tokyo for my Iaido class that evening I kept thinking about the gods and warriors, the princesses and ghosts I had spent the day with.
At one point there were so many laid out on the floor we had to tip toe over them just to get to the door. They all stared up with such varied and distinct expressions but all of them seem to be saying the same thing:
Use me. I want to live again.
The Actor's Shrine in Hanozono.
Two weeks later, Kitazawa-San sent pictures of the completed 2nd act Cordelia.
He had adhered to the traditions of Noh- note the gold eyes and disheveled tendrils of hair of the Deigan mask- yet it is wholly original.
It is a woman.
But stronger than I've ever seen in traditional Noh masks.
It struck me that it would be a fine mask for Mother Courage.
Cordelia, Act II.
I wrote to Jubilith to tell her that Kitazawa-San’s creation for her mask had achieved a beautiful imbalance.
It was clear that the struggle to retain her innocence, so evident in her 1st act Cordelia, had been lost.
And heartbreakingly so.
The Cordelia of the 2nd act had clearly now seen the battlefields.
And the bodies littered there.
And stepped over them.
As they all silently demanded the same thing:
Use me. I want to live again.