• Denholm Hewlett

[Art/Culture] The Origins of Hannya

In this second installation of our demonology series, we gain an insight into the most terrifying character in Noh Theatre.

The word Hannya originates from the Sanskrit term for wisdom - specially Prajñāpāramitā, the highest form of Buddhist wisdom which can lead to enlightenment. The oldest surviving Hannya mask dates back to 1558, named after artist monk Hannya-bō, who managed to perfect its creation.

Noh and Nature / Book Cover

Noh (能), is a poetic form of classical Japanese musical dance-drama originating from the 14th century. It is the oldest surviving aristocratic theatrical tradition in the world. Noh plays are intense and abstract, immersive and transfixing allegorical spectacles, thematically intertwined with Buddhism, ancient gods, the natural world and the changing seasons. These primordial masked dramas are based on traditional literature and folklore legends of supernatural beings manifesting into the human realm. Noh theatre is an intangible cultural heritage for the Japanese.

Chikanobu Toyohara 1838-1912 (The shogun is providing a noh theater in his castle for the Edo people.)

The plots of Noh normally re-create famous scenes from well-known works of Japanese literature such as The Tale of Genji or The Tale of the Heike. The plays combine music, dance and acting to express Buddhist concepts. These ancient spiritual dramas integrate rich and heavy costumes, iconic masks and props into the storytelling. The narratives are structured entirely around song and dance, the language is poetic, movement is slow and graceful, the tone is solemn. The themes of the plays typically revolve around spirits, ghosts, dreams and the supernatural.

Emotion is conveyed through conventional nuanced gestures that express the inner workings of characters and reincarnate past occurrences into the present moment. The iconic masks represent various roles, women, men, priests, samurai, children, animals, elders, ghosts, gods and demons alike.

Unknown Artist - Plethora of Noh Masks

The word "Noh" translates directly to "skill" or "talent", the performers are highly trained visual storytellers who adorn themselves in elaborately crafted costumes and magical wooden masks to embody metaphysical, spiritual or wrathful figures, utilising their striking appearances and stylised movements to project the essence of their story rather than fully enacting it. Just like in traditional ballet, every movement in Noh is choreographed and symbolic by nature, there is never an individual interpretation of events.

"The Laughing Demoness" 1833) - Katsushika Hokusai

The most terrifying and well recognised of all these masks is Hannya (Enraged Soul) - The incarnation of a malevolent and vengeful female demon, spirit, serpent or dragon deity, who has lost control and is consumed with jealously, heartbreak and rage, sporting two large devil-like horns, leering open mouth, fanged tusk teeth and intense metallic eyes.

Woodblock print / Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900)

The Hannya mask portrays the souls of human women who have fallen prey to obsessive jealously or who have been betrayed and lost their sanity at the hands of despicable men. The folklore legends states that if women who die, naturally or by suicide, while consumed with immense levels of rage, jealously and emotional distress in their hearts, this disturbance serves as the main catalyst for the tormented woman's ghostly transformation into the destructive revenge-seeking Hannya demoness, who will kill and eat humans in order to appease their grudges.

Toshusai Syaraku - Hannya beats Samurai (1794)

Hannya also have a male counterpart, known as Oni, these malevolent folklore creatures are man-eating giants, ferocious bone-crunching ogres with red or blue skin, wild black hair, fangs tusks and sharp devil-like horns. These vicious monsters wield large Iron clubs so they can crush and destroy humans for sheer enjoyment, they feast primarily on livestock, human flesh and copious amounts of alcohol. These malicious Oni demons normally reside in remote mountain ranges, desolate caves, barren islands and abandoned fortresses. Oni were originally human men, but were so wicked and morally corrupt that they mutated into vengeful soldiers of the underworld and became the destructive servants to the empress of hell. Oni demons are the malicious shadowy tormentors of society and the skilled sorcerers responsible for spreading infectious diseases, they mercilessly terrorise the living and take pleasure from punishing the spirits of the damned in the infernos chambers of the underworld.

Oni chanting Buddhist Prayer (1864) Kawanabe Kyōsai

At first glance, Hannya may seem to be a solely odious and terrifying creature, but they're also deeply tormented and damaged entities, stripped of their humanity and haunted with intense emotional conflict as their souls fester in purgatory. The multifaceted design of the Hannya mask is rather ingenious, as the character's expression can look simultaneously demonic, frightening, dangerous, sorrowful, heartbroken and melancholic, depending on the perspective - A canvas for the complexity of human emotion brought to life with masterful skill in the art of Noh.

Onibaba (1964)

The chilling Japanese horror film ONIBABA (Devil-Hag), directed by Kaneto Shindo in 1964, has the most famous depiction of Hannya outside of Noh theatre. It's one of the most influential horror films of it's era, with American filmmaker William Friedkin, the acclaimed director of The Exorcist (1973), describing Onibaba as one of the most terrifying films he had ever seen. The film's use of animalistic violence and graphic sexuality was unprecedented at the time of release in Japan. This macabre folktale is inspired by the Shin Buddhist parable of yome-odoshi-no men (bride-scaring mask) or niku-zuki-no-men (mask with flesh attached).

Onibaba film poster (1964)

The film explores the symbiotic relationship between the natural world and supernatural. An old woman and daughter-in-law endure an isolated and impoverish existence in the apocalyptic swamp lands of medieval war-torn Japan. They engage in primal behaviours, murdering and stealing from lost samurai and soldiers in the tall and ominous Suzuki grasslands. The old woman becomes consumed with fear and jealously when her daughter-in-law falls in lust with a local war survivor, Hachi. The old woman instinctively feels threatened and hatches a sinister plot to masquerades as a demon, in stolen samurai robes and Hannya mask, to terrify her daughter into ending the romance. The mother is then punished in the eyes of Buddha as a direct consequence of messing with the forces of nature.

Onibaba (1964)

The Hannya mask curses the old woman and becomes welded to her face, almost impossible to remove. Director Kaneto Shindo stated that the effects of the mask on those who wear it in ONIBABA is symbolic of the disfigurement of the victims of the Atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, reflecting the nuclear traumas of society in post-war Japan.

Onibaba (1964)

~ You can watch this short documentary to learn more about the spirit and history of Noh, masterfully directed by Edwin Lee, winner of the Nat Geo short film award ~

~ Check out this incredible documentary on the creation of Noh Masks and their meanings. Directed and edited by Dym Sensei ~


Kingdom_of_the_Holy_Sun_-_16_-_Sihanouk_Artist Name
00:00 / 03:51

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