Artist Profile

Kitazawa Hideta and his Noh masks

Cordelia. A mask used in a Shakespeare performance of King Lear in San Francisco
Cordelia. A mask used in a Shakespeare performance of King Lear in San Francisco

Noh is a highly codified ancient music drama that has been performed in Japan since the 14th century. Originally developed by Kan’ami and Zeami, the plays draw their stories from classical literature. Noh is a unique and distinct form of performative art. Compared to Western dramas, the plays are subtle and subdued, and their beauty found in the abstract expressions. One of the most distinct features and perhaps the most iconic visual impression of Noh is the masks worn by the actors. While many masks are handed down over the generations, new masks are commissioned to refine the expressions required by the performer. Earlier in February this year, the Sainsbury Institute had the privilege to welcome Kitazawa Hideta, a master carver who specializes in making Noh masks, to give a special evening talk and demonstration to Friends of the Institute.

Kitazawa Hideta was born to a master wood carver who specialized in Buddhist and Shinto sculptures. His father never insisted on his son to follow the family trade. Kitazawa nonetheless was drawn to woodwork, however, he also knew that a promising career prospect was equally important for his future. He pursued forest studies at the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology, hoping that the degree will give him both knowledge on trees and a path to a steady job. He quickly discovered that much of his study was science-based learning. Feeling a sense of disconnect between horticultural science and his desire to work directly with wood, he confessed to his father that what he really wanted to do was to pursue a life of a wood carver. ‘I was determined to study wood carving and had no hesitation in asking my father to train me.’ His father’s response was less energetic, he says with a chuckle, and more along the lines of ‘do as you wish’. In fact, Kitazawa says that his father was the type of craftsman who taught by not teaching. Instead, all Kitazawa could do was to learn through stealth observation of his father at work. He began by doing rough block carving and preparation work for him As he improved, he began searching for his own creative expression that would define him as an independent carver.

Kitazawa’s breakthrough came after completing his apprenticeship with his father and met Ito Mitchihiko, a master Noh mask carver. Through Ito, Kitazawa learned how to make Noh masks. He found true satisfaction in this new artistic form. ‘I experienced a real sense of joy, especially as in mask making, there is the carving element, but also other aspects such as threading and colouring.’ Being based in Katsushika ward in Tokyo, famous for its working-class community and clusters of independent craftsmen, Kitazawa was in good company amongst other traditional craft artisans to hone his skills. His big moment came when one of his friends was taken in as a deshi (trainee) by Nomura Manzō, a Kyōgen (traditional Japanese comic theatre) actor who was designated with the Living National Treasure title. When his friend showed one of Kitazawa’s masks to the Nomura family, they immediately took interest and appointed Kitazawa to make masks for them. Since then, Kitazwa has expanded his client base to include first class actors of Noh and Kyōgen theatre, and to both domestic and international clients. His masks have appeared not only in traditional Noh plays, but also in Western plays. Recent examples include the adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear performed in San Francisco where Kitazawa’s mask was used by the actor performing the role of King Lear’s youngest daughter Cordelia.

Kitazawa Hideta at work
Kitazawa Hideta at work

In Japan, it is said that 2000 Noh plays are known to have been written and currently some 240 plays form the main repertoire of plays performed by five existing Noh school families. Noh tradition is preserved through a strict iemoto system of hereditary succession and makes entering the business anything but straight forward. While contemporary renditions are performed, albeit sparingly, Noh, by in large, remain true to its tradition. The drama is expressed in highly abstract forms. The actor is a silent performer while the narratives are chanted by seated performers on the stage. His every movement is ascribed with specific meaning and intent–an incremental shift of the head may be used to suggest intense sadness while a small flick of the fan may be used to suggest the presence of monumental waves pounding the coastline. The masks are certainly used to similar effect. A tilt in the face causes the light to shift and the shadows to intensify the eerie sense of a concentrated expression. For the seasoned audience, part of the pleasure of watching Noh is to unpack these abstract codes that each movement denotes. The more Noh you knew, the more rewarding it is to experience Noh plays. This isn’t to say that Noh is all high-brow and otherwise too esoteric. It only requires a sense of interest and artistic appreciation to enjoy Noh performances even for the non-initiated.

Kitazawa certainly enjoys working in refining the already refined. ‘I find flat and less articulated masks more difficult to work on. Even a difference of a millimetre changes the resulting expression completely. I pay a great deal of attention particularly on the eyes and the mouth. Even though it is the audience who are looking at the mask, I’d like to create masks that reverse the relationship where it is the mask that is staring at the audience and attempting to speak to them.’ Kitazawa is also careful in the way he applies colour. ‘I layer several subtly different colours to achieve a deliberate and a subtle patina.’ Kitazawa, as Cordelia mask conveys, enjoys working beyond the strict boundaries of Noh masks. ‘I do like working on kyōgen masks where the format is less codified and lends itself to a broader creative expression.’

Hannya mask represents a jealous female demon
Hannya mask represents a jealous female demon

Simple and arresting, his masks are a representation of beauty in its most refined form. Just as Noh is the art of abstract minimality, the masks are pared down to its essential elements. There are several character masks used in Noh.

Okina (Old man): the oldest type of Noh masks that originated from another form of theatre called sarugaku.
Jō (Elders): masks used to portray spirits.
Onna-men (Woman): a variety of different woman masks made to accommodate the character. Examples include young beautiful women, young peasant women, middle-aged women and old women.
Otoko-men (Man): Again, different varieties of otoko-men are made for different character type portrayal of a man character.
Kishin (Demons): Masks used for portraying demons, goblins and other worldly creatures. The creature could be malicious or benign.
Onryō (Ghosts and Spirits): Masks used for portraying the spirit of the dead


Kitazwa has travelled around the world to encourage people within and outside Japan to take interest and be inspired by Noh mask making. He has held workshops in the UK, US and Australia where he helped many students complete their own masks. While he acknowledges that being a professional mask carver is not an easy profession, he wants as many people to experience the joy of pleasure of investing one’s own time and energy to create something that posess spiritual energy. For those seriously interested in giving mask making a go, he suggests using lime wood as a good alternative to Japanese hinoki cypress.

Kaz Morohashi
Research and Planning Officer

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