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

by William T. Vollmann
     
 

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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

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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.”
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:
03/15/2011
Pages:
528
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.50(d)

What People are saying about this

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.”

Meet the Author

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.

Brief Biography

Hometown:
Sacramento, California
Date of Birth:
July 28, 1959
Place of Birth:
Santa Monica, California
Education:
Attended Deep Springs College and Cornell University

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