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Review: Kissing the Mask
August 22, 2010

Kissing the Mask
William T. Vollmann

The subtitle of William T. Vollman’s non-fiction work, Kissing the Mask, is “Beauty, understatement and femininity in Japanese Noh theater.” Noh, performed since the 14th century, is a type of musical drama centered around historical events or classical tales. The main characters wear masks, and men play male and female roles. A single performance of five plays interspersed with shorter, humorous pieces can last all day. Noh is arguably the most esoteric of the Japanese arts.

Vollmann’s goal is to present representations of feminine beauty seen through Noh. However, he admits upfront not only is he “deaf, dumb and illiterate in Japanese” but he “may not be the perfect author for any essay on Noh.” For these and other reasons, he decides to characterize his book a “string-ball of idle thoughts.” A string-ball, perhaps, but not so idle thoughts. Yes, he gives us his impressions of Noh, written in his rich, textual and sensual way, describing what really in the end can only be experienced, in particular, the way femininity and beauty are portrayed in Noh. But he further explicates his dimensions of beauty with a mélange of contrasting European views, Japanese aesthetics, a comparative analysis of a porn actress’s face, a life study of a modern geisha, and his own experiences with women, among others.

Two main strings comprise Vollmann’s string-ball. The first is the role of Zeami, who with his father established Noh theater in the 1300s. Some fifty Noh dramas still performed are attributed to Zeami, including the classics Izutsu (“The Well Frame,” a love story ), Hagoromo (“The Feather Mantle,” a story about a swan maiden), and a play about the tragic 11th-century samurai hero Atsumori. Zeami also wrote about the theory of Noh, levels of beauty, and practical instructions for the Noh actors. It is Zeami’s levels of beauty that Vollmann refers to often. For example: Zeami’s third highest level of beauty is “The art of the flower of tranquility. Piling snow in a silver bowl.”

The other main string is the role of the mask in Noh. The masks, with their frozen expressions, some sublime some hideous, can be centuries old. They are passed down through the generations in families of actors or schools. These old masks so intricately carved are never cleaned, and are coated with the human sweat and saliva from hundreds of performances. Vollmann describes how these masks are made, what the audience should experience from the frozen expression, why the eyebrows are painted so high on the forehead, and other details. For example, he describes one mask he sees during a performance: “Golden-yellow with metallic hair, sunken-eyed, with a dark slit for a mouth, shadow-cheeked and aquiline.”

Of course his underlying premise is that femininity is itself a mask, especially when involving gender-bending and contrived or inexplicable cultural norms. How to explain the appeal of the blackened-teeth of feudal Japanese princesses? Or the unnatural proportions of the Noh Mask? Or today’s norms as seen on television ads for shampoo, for example? Vollmann asks the question: “Might there be not merely ambiguity but hypocrisy in Noh’s representation of feminine beauty?” In Noh there is a sadness (in Japanese “aware”) attached to beauty; it is celebrated but is transient.

Vollmann never fully unravels his ball of string, and he jumps from thread to thread. But tackling such a complex and changing issue as “beauty” will never be a linear discussion. So read Kissing the Mask with that in mind, appreciate its rich language and twisting turns, and enjoy Vollmann’s depth of knowledge and sense of wonder.

COMMENTS

Number of comments: 1
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Lee Witte
Beauty indeed is a slippery and changeable concept. Look at today's piercings and tattoos. ... in the eye of the beholder.

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