26 July 2011


[In 1976, my parents made a trip to Japan, something they’d wanted to do for a long time. It was their habit to bring something interesting back as a sort of souvenir for me from their travels and while they were visiting Kyoto, my folks bought a Gigaku mask. Probably a modern copy or interpretation—original Gigaku masks are all mostly in temple museums and are extremely old and in delicate condition—the mask is a carved wooden image of the character Konron, possibly lacquered, with grotesque features, and painted bright red—an altogether frightening aspect. Years later, after I’d studied some Japanese theater forms (Kabuki, Noh, and a little Bunraku), I got curious about the mask and the character it represents, so I went to the Japan Society on East 47th Street and used its library to do a little research on the theater form and Konron. Here’s what I learned about this ancient performance which predates both Kabuki and Noh and has entirely disappeared in modern Japan.]

Gigaku is an ancient comic dance drama, performed outdoors mostly in temple courtyards. It was intended originally to add color and excitement to the long, solemn Buddhist ceremonies. A lost form, little is known about the performances today except that they merged mime, masked dances, and music. It’s said to have originated in the central Chinese kingdom of Wu, but, as no similar forms are known in China, it’s also quite likely it originated in west or southwest Asia. In Japanese, the Chinese character for Wu is pronounced "Go," and the dance is properly called Gogaku, "music of Go." Today, it’s known as Gigaku, "skillful” or “elegant music." Gigaku masks, among the world’s oldest, are the earliest known in Japan. Tradition has it that a Korean musician named Mimashi imported Gigaku into Japan in 612. The dances, performed to the accompaniment of a simple orchestra of flute, cymbals, tsutsumi drums, and gong, were a major part of temple ceremonies. The masked dramas were sung, danced, and mimed without spoken dialogue or poetry and there are some preserved musical manuscripts, but no record of what the dancing was like. Despite its connection to the temple, Gigaku was not necessarily solemn; the plays were “wide-ranging, explicit, and popular.” Early enactments, however, were described as unrefined and lewd, displaying foreign influences from countries all along the Silk Road, from Mediterranean Europe through North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Persia, India, Indonesia, Indochina, to Japan.

From the 7th to 10th centuries, the Yamato court in Japan greatly admired Chinese and Korean culture, imitating the splendor of the mainland models. This involved importing and assimilating not only Buddhism and Chinese culture, but the music, dances, theater, and ceremonies, as well. In 612, Mimashi, who’d studied in China, brought Gigaku to the Japanese court and the Yamato prince-regent directed him to set up a school at the imperial court to teach music and dance to boys sent to learn the new art form. Gigaku promoted the new religion of Buddhism, which the prince-regent devotedly supported. The dance drama reached its heyday in Japan in the first half of the 8th century, during the Nara period (710-794), but by the start of the 9th century in the Heian period (794-1192), Bugaku had replaced it as the official entertainment at court and Gigaku began to decay in the 10th century because it didn’t fit the more refined Buddhism and aesthetic attitude of the new era. By the 12th century, Gigaku had lost imperial support and performances gradually ceased until the form became essentially extinct. The last recorded performances were in the Genroku period (1688-1704).

Gigaku masks are large and constructed to cover the upper part of the head, including the ears, as well as the face (unlike Noh masks, which cover only the face). Because the plays were often performed out-of-doors at court or temples, the masks were carved with highly exaggerated features so that their comic impression could still be seen in the vast courtyards. Shading and dark lines around the facial features increased the dramatic effect and hair was even glued on some masks. The size and deep carving also served to heighten the effect. As many as 14 characters, apparently influenced by designs from India, China, and Indonesia, have been identified, ranging from humans, shishi lions, bird-beaked creatures, demons, and superhumans. They are traditionally divided into four categories:

  • Kojin (“barbarian,” or foreign) characters: Chido, the “one who prepares the way”; Baramon, an Indian Brahmin; Suiko-o, a drunk foreign king; and Suiko-ju, a drunk foreign retainer
  • Gojin (people of Wu) masks: Goko, King of Wu; Gojo, Princess of Wu; Kongo, a Buddhist god of strength; Rikishi, a wrestler; Taikofu, an old man or woman accompanied by children; Taikoshi, children on a pilgrimage
  • Nankaijin (people from the southern sea) group: Konron, a villain
  • Irui (animals) characters: Shishi, a lion; Karora or Karura, king of the birds.

Extant masks, some as old as 1300 years, in monastery museums, are mostly at the temple museums of Todai-ji and Shoso-in in Nara where about 100 of the 250 known examples, including 7th-century masks brought to Japan by Mimashi, are preserved. Usually carved by Buddhist artists, exemplifying the style and technique of contemporary Buddhist sculpture, they were hewn from wood or, less often, dry lacquer, and covered in successive layers of linen and lacquer before painting. The bold, grand style of the Konron (also called Kuron) mask is particularly impressive. The largest of Gigaku masks, its weight was kept to a minimum by the use of paulownia wood. Konron’s expression stresses demonic or beastly traits, with bulging eyes, a wide nose, and visible upper row of teeth with fangs, enhanced by the bat-like ears. (In fact, he resembles nothing so much as Western images of Satan.)

In early times the savages of the southern sea were called konron, but later the term was extended to apply to slaves and pagans in general. The Gigaku Konron, however, was a lustful creature who attempted to seduce Gojo, the maiden or princess of Wu, creating great merriment by his silly, vulgar gestures and making a disheartened exit with his phallus broken off by Gojo’s protectors. Konron was a dark-complexioned man from the southern sea (K’un-lun) who represents the villain of the Gigaku play, the non-Buddhist, the “alien.”

The most complete description of a Gigaku performance is the Kyokunsho, the description of Koma Chikazane (1172-1242), a Bugaku musician, compiled in 1233 from tradition and old music books. Though it dates from 400 years after Gigaku disappeared from court performances and 500 years after the form’s highpoint, it’s considered an accurate account when taken with other historical records and the masks. There appear to have been as many as ten Gigaku pieces, all beginning with a ritualistic musical prelude and a procession of chanting monks. The procession seems to have started inside the temple and moved to some kind of stage in the courtyard, surrounded by thousands of monks and worshipers. There was no curtain or set and very few props; except for the musicians, however, all the performers wore elaborate masks and colorful costumes. The procession began with purely ritual music, then the monks paraded around and around the courtyard reciting prayers at chapels and statues. This was followed by the Gigaku procession as the masks were carried in a procession around the temple yard to musical accompaniment. Chido, in a red mask with a wide mouth, bulging eyes, a long nose, and black eyebrows and whiskers, purified the path, followed by the musicians. Then a lion (Shishi), played by two men with a brightly-colored mask whose jaw moved when the lead performer moved his head, appeared, trailed by two lion cubs (Shishiko) in friendly, smiling child masks. The lions performed “The Lions of the Five Directions,” a ritual dance accompanied by songs. After a comic interlude to teach Buddhist wisdom, Konron was performed, followed by three short pantomimes to present Buddhist lessons. After this, music would be played to conclude the ceremony and the performers would proceed back into the temple where they started.

Konron, a kind of Buddhist mystery play, had six to ten characters. First, Goko, the King of Wu, entered in a dignified mask and royal crown. He ordered the flute to be blown to announce the commencement of the main program. With musical accompaniment, Kongo, a symbol of firmness, an attribute of Buddha, entered wearing a fierce mask, and seated himself next to the king. Next Karora (or Karura), wearing a mask looking like a weird bird, entered and danced energetically. Karora may have been Garuda in Sanskrit, king of birds in Indian mythology, or he may have been the fire-eating bird or the monster bird who eats poisonous snakes—there is no proof for any of the theories. The character who entered next was Gojo, the daughter of the king, who wore a lovely girl’s mask and took up a conspicuous position on the stage. Each character’s entry was always accompanied by appropriate music.

Finally Konron, the villain, entered wearing the mask of a horrible demon. He introduced himself in an impetuous dance, focusing his eyes on Gojo. Enchanted by the girl, he beat a phallus-shaped stick with a fan, dancing a violent, impulsive, seductive dance at the end of which he caught hold of Princess Gojo. At this point, Rishiki, a wrestler, opened the gate, and Kongo, wearing a mask suggestive of strength, walked onto the stage, clapping his hands vigorously and performing a dance of entrance. With the assistance of Rikishi, he grappled fiercely with Konron and finally suppressed him, rescuing Gojo from her predicament. Putting a rope on Konron’s phallus stick, he swung it about, bending it and knocking it around. Religiously, the piece, however comic, was a commandment against lust. Konron was the incarnation of lust, the obstacle to enlightenment; Gojo, the medium for enlightenment; Rishiki and Kongo, primarily guardians of Buddhism.

Next, the three pantomimes were presented: Baramon, a warning against lust; Taiko, a lesson on how to hold rites for the dead; Suiko, a commandment against drunkenness. When the dramatic pieces were finished, parades of dancers were staged as a finale. The whole Gigaku program ended with a procession of joyous music.

Nomura Mannojo, a Japanese director and producer, has revived the ancient tradition of Gigaku masked performance in Japan. During research across the Silk Road, Nomura, a scion of a famous Kyogen family in Japan, discovered the connections between the Gigaku masks of Japan and other large-mask traditions in China, Tibet, and India. Informed by folk entertainments and literary scholarship, he researched remnants of reference books and picture scrolls. He studied numerous traditional entertainment and music that reflected the diversity of Japan's various regions. Based on this research he has organized a troupe, Ethnos, whose dancers come from several countries and in Gigaku masks perform dance dramas drawn from Japanese tradition. Nomura has recreated some of the historical masks for his dance troupe. There are reportedly other, amateur troupes, many at universities such as the Heisei Gigaku Troupe at Tenri University in Nara, that have engaged in putative revivals of Gigaku—though, like Nomura’s company, they have to base their reconstructions on speculation and imagination since so little record of the form has existed for over 1000 years.

[The principal sources for this article, supplemented by other research, were: Yoshinobu Inoura and Toshio Kawatake’s The Traditional Theater of Japan (New York: Weatherhill, 1981); Benito Ortolani’s article "To Court and Shrine from the World: Gigaku and Bugaku" in Samuel Leiter’s Japanese Theater in the World (New York: Japan Society, 1997); Seiroku Noma’s Masks, No. 1 Arts & Crafts of Japan (Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle, c. 1957); and Kyotaro Nishikawa’s Bugaku Masks (Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1978).]


  1. who would wear the gigaku mask and why??

  2. when was the mask made and what culture is this mask linked
    also wat signs and symbols are evident

  3. I'm not sure what the first questioner above means, so the only answer I can manage is that someone would wear the Gigaku mask to perform Gigaku dramas. It was part of the form, like Noh, and for those trying to revive it, it still is.

    As for Ben's question, I refer you to the article again. Gigaku dates from the 7th century and the oldest masks that exist today go back as much as 1300 years (i.e., 8th century). The masks as they exist today, which may not be exactly as they looked when they were made, have no symbols on them; the iconography of the masks--the traditional shape and features carved into the faces--distinguished each character.

    I hope this answers at least parts of your questions. I appreciate your curiosity, and you should understand that Gigaku is mostly still a lost art so not much is known about it today. A lot of what is "known"--guessed, really--is derived from related folk forms that still exist and forms from cultures where the precursors to Gigaku came from or passed through on the way to Japan.