• Denholm Hewlett

[Art/Culture] The Origins of Hannya (般若)

Psychic Garden explore 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.


"The Laughing Demoness" 1833) - Katsushika Hokusai

Noh (能), is a poetic form of classical Japanese masked-musical dance-drama originating from the 14th century. It is the oldest surviving aristocratic theatrical tradition in the world that is still practiced today. 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 is an intangible cultural heritage for the Japanese.



The plots of Noh normally re-create famous scenes from well-known works of Japanese literature, while combining music, dance and acting to express Buddhist concepts. These ancient spiritual dramas integrate rich costumes, masks, and props into the storytelling. The narratives are structured around song and dance, the language is poetic, movement is slow and graceful, the tone is solemn. Noh theatre plays typically revolve around stories regarding spirits, ghosts, dreams and the supernatural.


Noh and Nature / Book Cover

Noh actors are highly trained visual storytellers who adorn themselves in elaborately crafted costumes and 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. 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.



The most terrifying and iconic of the Noh masks/characters is Hannya (Enraged Soul) - The incarnation of a melancholy and vengeful female demon, serpent or dragon deity, who has lost control and is consumed with heartbreak and rage, sporting two large devil-like horns, fanged tusk teeth, intense metallic eyes and a leering open mouth.



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


Onibaba (1964)

Hannya have a male counterpart, known as Oni, these malevolent folklore creatures are man-eating giants, ferocious ogres with red or blue skin, wild black hair, fangs tusks, and sharp devil horns. Oni demons serve as the personal soldiers and servants to the Empress of Hell. These 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 illusive Oni demons normally reside in remote mountain ranges, desolate caves, barren islands and abandoned fortresses.



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



The classic 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 the era, with William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist (1973), describing Onibaba as one of the most terrifying films he had ever seen. The 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. Two women 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 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, 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 has 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)

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



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



~ PSYCHIC GARDEN