Elevate Difference

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

Full disclosure: I am an avid fan of William T. Vollmann's work and was excited to read this book. Vollmann often has strange and interesting things to say about women and gender relations, and his notorious interest in prostitutes (who feature prominently in both his fiction and non-fiction) may almost be labeled as an obsession. In his latest book, Kissing The Mask, Vollmann concentrates on the nature of femininity by viewing it primarily through the lens of the ancient, gorgeous masks of Japanese Noh theater. It is also a meditation on the idea of femininity as a staged performance.

Noh theater is far too complex to encapsulate in just a few sentences, and Vollmann himself often professes trouble in defining it thoroughly. At first glance, Noh seems a bizarre choice of medium through which to focus on femininity, as most Noh actors are male and men traditionally play the roles of women with the aid of costuming and masks. However, Vollmann directs his attention, and the readers', to the beautifully rendered Noh masks representing female characters. These become a metaphor for the “mask” of femininity that many women wear: makeup, jewelry, clothing, and other adornments that are more or less socially mandated.

Similarly, the elaborate and carefully orchestrated movements on the Noh stage are analogous to the “staged” femininity also involving complex, time-consuming, and money-burning ornamentation that often results in constricted and painful mobility. Vollmann is concerned with what “manifests” a woman as opposed to what a woman “is,” and in this endeavor he visits Japanese geishas and transvestites, both of whom could be said to wear the feminine mask. He digresses into history of what other cultures have traditionally considered “beautiful,” and manages to weave in thoughts about porn stars and artists' muses.

Vollmann readily admits that he perceives women as “the other,” and is fully aware of the fact that he is viewing women through the privilege of a male gaze. He waxes rhapsodic about female beauty throughout the text, basically elevating women on a very high and poetic pedestal, which made me slightly uncomfortable; when a person (or entire gender) is put up on a pedestal, it's a long way to fall. Vollmann appears to genuinely like and respect women, however, and my discomfort was minor and temporary. He also, as in his other nonfiction books, makes no pretense about being an objective observer; he is fully immersed as a character in his own true story.

Kissing The Mask is highly valuable as a look into the secretive, baroque, and intricate Japanese subcultures of Noh theater and geisha teahouses, with the author's personal study of staged femininity mostly as a bonus. Furthermore, it's enriched with William Vollmann's gorgeous and almost lyrical prose, plenty of photographs and drawings, several appendices with notes and chronologies, and a glossary for the many Japanese words and phrases liberally sprinkled through the material.

Written by: Natalie Ballard, April 6th 2010

Very nice review and the link to the video explanation of the art form is a big plus. I always enjoy reading Natalie's reviews.

However, I do think it bears pointing out that some women enjoy wearing makeup and dressing up. This is not for the benefit of men, it is for ourselves or sometimes for other women. It is not a punishment, nor is it mandated by society, although I'm sure a certain population of society appreciates the effort. Other women for instance, because they are aware of what goes into looking particularly fetching.