Kissing the Mask: Beauty, Understatement and Femininity in Japanese Noh Theater

Overview

From the National Book Award-winning author of Europe Central, a charming, evocative and piercing examination of an ancient Japanese tradition and the keys it holds to our modern understanding of beauty

What is a woman? To what extent is femininity a performance? Writing with the extra-ordinary awareness and endless curiosity that have defined his entire oeuvre, William T. Vollmann takes an in-depth look at the Japanese craft of Noh theater, ...

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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 Figu

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Overview

From the National Book Award-winning author of Europe Central, a charming, evocative and piercing examination of an ancient Japanese tradition and the keys it holds to our modern understanding of beauty

What is a woman? To what extent is femininity a performance? Writing with the extra-ordinary awareness and endless curiosity that have defined his entire oeuvre, William T. Vollmann takes an in-depth look at the Japanese craft of Noh theater, using the medium as a prism to reveal the conception of beauty itself.

Sweeping readers from the dressing room of one of Japan's most famous Noh actors to a trans-vestite bar in the red-light district of Kabukicho, Kissing the Mask explores the enigma surrounding Noh theater and the traditions that have made it intrinsic to Japanese culture for centuries. Vollmann then widens his scope to encompass such modern artists of desire and loss as Mishima, Kawabata and Andrew Wyeth. From old Norse poetry to Greek cult statues, from elite geisha dancers to American makeup artists, from Serbia to India, Vollmann uncovers secrets of staged femininity and mysteries of perceived and expressed beauty, including specific makeup procedures furnished by an L.A. transgender bar girl, a Kabuki female impersonator, and the owner of a semi-clandestine studio for Tokyo cross-dressers.

Kissing the Mask is illustrated with many evocative sketches and photographs by the author.

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Editorial Reviews

San Francisco Chronicle
“Reward[s] the reader who stays with it for the long trip, the way a travel chronicle does.... Vollmann is not just a writer who admires. He is a writer who looks and touches.”
Booklist
“[A] provocative inquiry into beauty and desire... [Vollmann] is a passionate and penetrating observer ... a daring, brilliant, and idiosyncratic quest astonishing in its discernment, scope, and feeling.”
Pico Iyer
“[Vollmann’s] evocations of [Noh’s] death-haunted stories, its eerie masks, its male actors playing women...are so electric and strange, so enchanted, that they made me long for the very dramas that have often sent me toward the exit before the intermission.”
Booklist
“[A] provocative inquiry into beauty and desire... [Vollmann] is a passionate and penetrating observer ... a daring, brilliant, and idiosyncratic quest astonishing in its discernment, scope, and feeling.”
San Francisco Chronicle
“Reward[s] the reader who stays with it for the long trip, the way a travel chronicle does.... Vollmann is not just a writer who admires. He is a writer who looks and touches.”
Library Journal
Vollmann (Imperial; Europe Central), who has tackled an astonishing array of subjects in fiction and nonfiction, here explores female beauty—its creation and consumption—with a spotlight on highly stylized traditional Japanese Noh theater. Because male actors wearing strictly codified masks perform all Noh roles, men, ironically, are both the creators and purveyors of female beauty. From Noh, Vollmann explores other far-flung performances of feminine beauty, including revered geisha, L.A. transvestites, a porn model, Andrew Wyeth's Helga paintings, and legendary Norse women and even dons his own cross-gendered mask with the help of a makeup artist. While Vollmann's sprawling tome clearly contains committed research, it is a flawed hodgepodge of indulgent musings (or a "string-ball of idle thoughts," as he calls it). VERDICT Describing himself as "Deaf, dumb and illiterate in Japanese," Vollmann also admits, "This book cannot pretend to give anyone a working knowledge of Noh." Readers might instead try Japanese Nô Dramas, translated by Royall Tyler, or, for Japanese perspectives on beauty, the works of Yukio Mishima and Yasunari Kawabata.—Terry Hong, Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program, Washington, DC
Publishers Weekly
The performance of female characters by male Noh actors sparks a deeply researched, lovingly detailed, and obsessive discourse on the nature of feminine beauty by award-winning novelist and essayist Vollmann (Imperium). The book charts an increasingly peripatetic path through the meticulous yet ineffable art of Noh drama from the perspective of an enthusiast, all the while groping toward some definition of beauty and the feminine. But the feminine, and even the label “female,” is something widely claimed, and so the search takes him from a Tokyo transvestite bar to the feet of a master Noh actor—Umewaka Rokuro, scion of an ancient acting family—to the lips of the uncanny masks themselves, the kimonos of Kabuki geishas, and well beyond, traipsing far and wide across India, Babylon, the American fashion magazine industry, old Norse literature, the paintings of Andrew Wyeth, Yukio Mishima's Noh heroine Komachi, and a transgender community in Los Angeles, among other stops. The fervently reflective, probing narrative—replete with footnotes, glossary, illustrations, appendixes, and asides—demands patience, but rewards it on almost every page. (Apr.)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061228490
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 3/15/2011
  • Pages: 528
  • Sales rank: 1,427,896
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

William T. Vollmann

William T. Vollmann is the author of seven novels, three collections of stories, and a seven-volume critique of violence, Rising Up and Rising Down. He is also the author of Poor People, a worldwide examination of poverty through the eyes of the impoverished themselves; Riding Toward Everywhere, an examination of the train-hopping hobo lifestyle; and Imperial, a panoramic look at one of the poorest areas in America. He has won the PEN Center USA West Award for Fiction, a Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize and a Whiting Writers' Award. His journalism and fiction have been published in The New Yorker, Esquire, Spin and Granta. Vollmann lives in Sacramento, California.

Biography

Fearless, ambitious, and wildly original, William T. Vollmann has been lionized as one of the most significant and influential voices in contemporary postmodernist literature. His dauntingly voluminous books, a hodgepodge of fiction and journalism, are marked by bold, often beautiful language. They also spring from personal experience: Volmann is famous for total immersion in his subjects. His research has taken him to the ends of the earth – to the North Pole, to war zones around the globe, and (perhaps most famously) to San Francisco's notorious Tenderloin district to gain a better understanding of its notorious denizens..

Vollmann roared onto the literary scene in 1987 with You Bright and Risen Angels, a bold and quirky debut novel that chronicled in allegorical fashion the bitter battle between insects and the inventors of electricity. From that point on, his books became less surreal and more gritty. In 1992, he wrote his first "official" work of nonfiction, An Afghanistan Picture Show , an impressionistic chronicle of his experiences among the Afghan rebels in the early 1980s. Since then, the prolific author has produced an unstoppable juggernaut of prose, most notably installments in his towering fictional sequence Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes and a labyrinthine seven-volume treatise on violence called Rising Up, Rising Down. Published by the iconoclastic publishing house McSweeney's in 2003, this magnum opus was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Nonfiction.

In 1999, The New Yorker named Vollmann one of the 20 best American writers under the age of 40. In 2005, he was awarded the National Book Award for Fiction for Europe Central, a 750-page series of linked stories set in Germany and Russia during World War II. His journalism continues to appear in such magazines as Esquire, Spin, Gear, Outside, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, and The New Yorker. In addition, he has founded the Co-Tangent Press as a vehicle for publishing his own limited edition art books.

Good To Know

Vollmann wrote his first novel, You Bright and Risen Angels, while working as a computer programmer.

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    1. Also Known As:
      m the Blind, Captain Subzero
    2. Hometown:
      Sacramento, California
    1. Date of Birth:
      July 28, 1959
    2. Place of Birth:
      Santa Monica, California
    1. Education:
      Attended Deep Springs College and Cornell University

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations xv

0 Understatements About This String-Ball of Idle Thoughts 1

I Black Hair

1 "The Mask Is Most Important Always": The Noh Performances of Umewaka Rokuro 9

2 Schematics: Roles, Rules, Props 43

3 Malignance and Charm: A Catalogue of Female Masks 65

4 A Branch of Flowers: Steps to Ineffability 84

5 The Dragons of Kasuga: Texts, Places, Histories, Masks 91

6 Sunshine at Midnight: An Interview with Mr Mikata Shizuka 102

7 Perfect Faces: Maiden, Mask, Geisha, Wife, Princess 106

8 Aya Kudo and the Zo-onna: A Porn Model Compared with a Noh Goddess 117

9 Her Golden Lips Slightly Parted: An Image of Kannon 126

10 Crossing the Abyss: The Three Beings of Three Women 128

11 What Is Grace?: A List and a Possible Hermeneutic 141

12 Rainbow Skirts: The Loveliness of Lady Yang 166

13 Jewels in the Darkness: The Dances of Kofumi-san and Konomi-san 174

14 "She Cannot Do Anything Else": Compulsions, Costs, Achievements 202

15 Suzuka's Dressing Room: A Geisha Gets Ready 212

16 "They Just Want to Look in the Mirror": Yukiko Makes Me Over 222

17 "I Sit with My Legs Closed": Glimpses of Onnagatas 229

18 "There's No Ugly Lady Face": Katy Transforms 237

19 The Phallus of Tiresias: What Is a Woman? 244

II White Arms

20 A Curtain of Mist: Understatement and Concealment 255

21 In the Forest: An Apology 263

22 Sun-Bright Like Swords: The Beauty of Valkyries 264

23 Passing Light: Andrew Wyeth's Helga Pictures 282

24 Who Is the Willow Tree Goddess?: Snatches of a Play 292

III Beauty's Ghost

25 Snow in a Silver Bowl: An Epitaph for Radha's Grace 297

26 Beauty's Ghost: Ono No Komachi in Traditional Noh Plays 298

27 Urashima's Box: A Few Thoughts About Time 312

28 The Decay of the Angel: Komachi in the Noh Plays of Mishima Yukio 318

IV The Moon Maiden Goes Home

29 Sunshine on Silla: The Unknown 331

30 Pine Tree Constancy: "Takasago," "Izutsu" and "Matsukaze" 338

31 Kagekiyo's Daughter: "Semimaru" and the Plays of Separation 354

32 Behind the Rainbow Curtain: Going Home Beneath the Skin 367

Appendix A Descriptions of Feminine Beauty in The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon (ca. 1000-1010) 405

Appendix B Descriptions of Feminine Beauty in Some Old Norse Sources 408

Appendix C Descriptions of Feminine Beauty in Sappho and Miscellaneous Greek Lyric Sources 414

Appendix D Proportions of Feminine Beauty in Some Classical and Western European Sources 421

Appendix E Noh Play Groups, and Plays Mentioned 423

Glossary 425

Chronology 431

Notes 436

Bibliography 486

Note on the Illustrations 501

Note on the Orthography 502

Acknowledgments 503

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