Column: What A-bombed “noh” masks tell us

The parents of Hiroko Takanashi, an A-bomb survivor and haiku poet, enjoyed painting, calligraphy and the tea ceremony. A couple, noh performers, lived nearby. A known teacher of the biwa (a four-stringed Japanese lute) also called the area her home. Though Hiroshima was a military city, the elegance of the Edo period (1603-1868) was still felt there. Here I quote one of Hiroko Takanashi’s haiku poems—one that conveys the atmosphere of Hiroshima before the war.

Shinowan no kuzuyu ni asobu tori arare
In kuzu starch gruel in a shino ware bowl, bird-shaped rice crackers play

One type of noh mask made to resemble a young woman is known as a koomote. At an exhibition opened at the Hiroshima Prefectural Art Museum yesterday, such a mask is on display. The mask is charred black and some parts have flaked-off. The outline of her face remains defined, though... round, with three strands of hair originating from the crown of her head, and parted to one side.

The mask was owned by the Asano clan; the ruling family of Hiroshima during the Edo Period. On that fateful day, the mask was in the private Kanko Museum within what is now central Hiroshima’s Shukkeien Garden. The original building was burned down in the atomic bombing, but the noh masks and costumes survived the fire.

Philosopher Tetsuro Watsuji (1889-1960) once said about noh masks, “Even a mask of a young woman is modeled like a person who died a sudden death.” The mask on display at the museum has a blank face, arousing all the more sadness. It seems the mask has, without specific intention, survived to tell of the tragedy where many died without knowledge as to what was happening.

Another haiku poem by the same poet reads:
Kangetsu ya hitoiki morasu manbi no men
A winter moon, a manbi mask lets out a breath

Manbi is also a type of mask fashioned to represent a woman’s face. At the prefectural museum, visitors too can see a manbi mask with flaked-off parts. I looked hard into the depth of her eyes.

(Originally published on September 11, 2019)