Gigaku is a silent dance drama brought to Japan from China. It is performed without words, by dancers wearing big masks.
The masks used for Gigaku are called Gigaku masks and they are different from the masks used for Bugaku or Noh. Gigaku masks are bigger and they cover the head, while other masks only cover the face. There are a number of different masks, corresponding to different roles in the play, including the human, demon, shishi lion and Herculean man masks.
More than a hundred gigaku masks are preserved in such historically important temples as Shousouin, Houryuu-ji and Toudai-ji and they have been designated as National Treasures.
Gigaku flourished around the 6th century in Japan and it was performed extensively in the precincts of temples and shrines in order to promote understanding of the Buddhist teachings. Shousouin temple has a set of Gigaku masks used largely for the gigaku dance that was held on the occasion of Daibutsu Kaigan (a ceremony to consecrate a newly made Buddhist image) at Toudai-ji in 752.
There are essentially two methods of making gigaku masks; kibori (wood carving) and kanshitsu (dry lacquer). Many of the wood carving masks were made from camphor and paulownia wood.
Popularly called “Chiryu Daimyojin,” Chiryu Shrine in Chiryu City, Aichi Prefecture, was one of the three distinctive shrines on the Tokaido Road in the Edo period (1603-1868). The shrine possesses a lot of precious cultural properties including the Tahoto pagoda, which is thought to have been built in the Muromachi period (1336-1573) and masks for Maigaku (court music), Noh plays and Shishi-mai (lion dance).
Among the renowned festivals held at this shrine, Akiba (Autumn Leaf) Festival in September every year serves as the annual festival of Akiba Shrine, a sub-shrine located in the precinct of Chiryu Shrine. According to the shrine festival record written in 1758, the kagura dance and ningyo-joruri (doll plays) were dedicated as the autumn festival in conformity to the Grand Festival of the main shrine in spring,
The main feature of Akiba Festival today is the display of tube fireworks, which started to be dedicated in 1907. During the day, young men of six towns of the city shoulder the box called “Tama-bako (ball case),” in which the stone representing a firework ball is placed, and valiantly parade through the city, singing “Nagamochi-uta.” When they return to the shrine in the evening, they stand in circle and display dynamic tube fireworks.
Chujo is one of the Male masks used to portray a male character. The Chujo mask is often used for a respectable noble man. It is said that the mask was modeled after Ariwara no Narihira, a famous Heian poet whose court rank was middle captain of the Inner Guard, chujo, hence the name of the mask.
While it has sharp facial features with slightly slanted eyes, its feminine and thin mouth, the high painted eyebrows and painted black teeth, which were typical of a court nobleman of that period, give a gentle impression. The two deep knots between the eyebrows create a melancholy countenance.
The Chujo mask is generally used to represent a spirit of the Heike prince or an aristocrat in such plays as “Kiyotsune,” “Michimori,” “Tadanori,” “Unrinin,” and “Tooru.”
Juroku is used to portray a male character such as a young warrior or a prince of the Heike clan. This mask is said to represent Taira no Atsumori (1169-1184), a nephew of Taira no Kiyomori. The name of the mask “Juroku (‘sixteen’ in Japanese)” is said to be derived from the fact that Taira no Atsumori died at the age of 16, when he was defeated by Kumagai Naozane in the Battle of Ichinotani, which is referred to in the Tale of the Heike.
The mask’s decent countenance with cute dimples and bright eyes fully expresses susceptibility of the youth. While the Doji mask is called the mask of the Full Moon, this Juroku mask is called the Mask of the 16th Moon. It is used for the plays such as “Atsumori,” “Tomonaga,” and “Tsunemasa.”
As the word “manbi” literally means “ten thousand coquetries,” the Manbi mask expresses coquetry of a young woman. This mask creates different impressions according to light and shade. When seen from the front, its long-slitted eyes and small projecting under jaw give an impression of a beautiful woman. But when it is tilted upward, it looks smiling prettily. And downward, it looks like a woman smiling fearlessly.
In the play “Momijigari,” the Manbi mask is used for a beautiful woman, who is actually the demon taking on the form of a woman. In the plot, Taira no Koremochi joins the feast held by young women in the mountain. Drunk by sake and the woman’s dance, Koremochi fell asleep. In his dream, he receives a message from the deity and slew the demon. The Manbi mask is also used for a demon taking on the form of a beautiful young woman in such plays as “Yuya” and “Sessho-seki.” The Manbi mask has a mysterious charm with both coquetry of an adult woman and prettiness of an innocent girl.
It is said that the Tenjin mask represents the furious countenance of Sugawara no Michizane, before he was deified. It is used for various heavenly gods including Michizane.
In the play “Raiden,” Michizane lost his position as Minister of the Right and was banished to Kyushu on account of an intrigue by a jealous Minister of the Left. Dying in rage, he transforms himself to Raijin, the god of lightening and thunder, and brings calamities to the court and capital, but was defeated by the Priest Hossho-bo from Enryakuji Temple on Mt. Hiei. As the emperor decided to deify him as Tenjin, the god of study, Michizane’s spirit is finally appeased.
The reddish coloring, the hair around the lips, the eyebrows, and the gold metal eyes give the mask an air of heightened emotions and movement. However, the mask's unassuming nose, thin lips, and open mouth exposing upper and lower teeth are simple and human-like.
The mask is also used to portray Idaten, who is a swift-footed deity, in the play “Shari,” and Amatsu Futodama, a deity who defeats the devil by using the golden tablet and the bow and arrow, in the play “Kinsatsu.”
The Ko-jishi mask is a kind of fierce deity masks representing a young lion, which is an imaginary holy creature and is often treated as an elfin-like being. The lion masks originate in Lion Dance in Dengaku and Sarugaku, which were introduced from China in the ancient times. The Ko-jishi mask is gold in color and has the up-slanting eyes with the eyeball looking upwards, which express an alert and agile young lion taking aim at his prey. Compared with the O-jishi mask, which is used as a parent of Ko-jishi, this mask is full of youthful vigor. The Shikami mask is sometimes used in stead of Ko-jishi, for it also looks like a young lion clenching its teeth.
The Sanko-jo mask is one of the Old Man masks, which express the features of very old men. It is said that because the mask was created by Sankobo, the priest at Echizen Heisenji Temple, it came to be called Sanko-jo. Or legend has it that the mask was created by three lights (“san-kou” in Japanese) of the Sun God, the Moon God and the Star God.
Having many wrinkles on the forehead and cheeks, it looks like an ordinary old man but also gives an arrogant impression. The Sanko-jo mask is used when the ghost of a fallen hero takes on the form of an old fisherman (mae-shite) in the play “Yashima.” It is also used to express a woodcutter and other common villagers in the plays such as “Tooru,” “Kanehira,” “Kuzu,” “Nomori,” “Ukai,” and “Akogi.”