Saturday, December 15, 2012

On Yoichi Nishiyama’s Gurozuka and the Inherent Creepiness of Noh Masks

Apparently it’s Noh month here at Say a Prayer for the Octopus, because I have another Noh-related post for your delectation.  I have just seen Yoichi Nishiyama’s cheap but pleasurable 2005 horror film Gurozuka, about a group of young women in a movie club (university students of some sort, I think, it was vague on this score) who go into the woods (because why not?) to make a film about a crazy woman wearing a Noh mask who kills people.  This will be the movie club’s first project since its reformation following a seven-year hiatus.  The previous movie club broke up because its members went into the woods to make a movie and one of them disappeared and one of them went crazy.  Oh, and the filmed record of their trip depicts a crazy woman in a Noh mask killing somebody.  And the members of the new film club have seen movie.  And it’s sort of like they said to themselves, “I really want to live and die in a horror movie. Let’s make this shit happen.”

Now, for years I’ve found Noh masks to be intensely creepy (and I’m sure I’m not alone in this), so you can imagine my pleasure in discovering a Japanese horror movie that exploits their inherent creepiness (although now that I think of it, I’m pretty sure the demon mask in Kaneto Shindo’s 1964 film Onibaba was a Noh mask, but still, Noh-mask-themed horror movies are few and far between).

What is it about Noh masks that makes them so damn creepy?  I think the crux of the matter lies in the fact that they’re simultaneously deeply inhuman and highly expressive.  I say inhuman for the simple reason that human faces tend to move (Nicole Kidman excepted), whereas a Noh mask has only one fixed expression.  But despite this unnatural fixedness, the Noh mask can still look profoundly human and, when worn by an expert, can convey far more meaning—can be far more expressive—than one would ever think possible.  We’re probably in “uncanny valley” territory here, with the masks looking very human but just inhuman enough to be deeply unsettling.
Maybe I’d find them less creepy if I had the opportunity to see them in action, but I’ve never been to a Noh performance (America) and I’ve only seen bits of them in movies.  My experience of the Noh comes mostly from reading the plays, and there I tend not to picture the characters as masked.  I have also been informed by William T. Vollmann’s excellent book, Kissing the Mask, the full title of which runs as follows: Kissing the Mask: Beauty, Understatement, and Femininity in Japanese Noh Theater: With Some Thoughts on Muses (Especially Helga Testorf), Transgender Women, Kabuki Goddesses, Porn Queens, Poets, Housewives, Makeup Artists, Geishas, Valkyries, and Venus Figurines.  Thank God for William T. Vollmann.

So, to return to Gurozuka, let it be said that if a person wearing a Noh mask is already creepy—and creepy in the uncanny sense—then you can imagine how that person only becomes creepier when she’s wielding a meat cleaver and rampaging through the woods.  Young Japanese film students must exercise an abundance of caution when venturing into the forest, and Gurozuka can serve as a cautionary tale for all of them.

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