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The Hannya mask is a mask used Noh theater, representing a jealous female demon or serpent. It possesses two sharp bull-like horns, metallic eyes, and a leering mouth split from ear to ear.
The name hannya is a Sino-Japanese word for prajna or wisdom. One tradition states that this name was given to this mask because it was the name of an artist monk Hannya-bō who is said to have perfected its creation. Another explanation is that Perfection of Wisdom sutras and their variations were considered to be particularly effective against female demons. An alternate explanation is that the artist would need a great deal of wisdom in order to create this mask.
The Hannya mask is used in many noh and kyōgen Japanese plays, as well as in Shinto ritual kagura dances. The Hannya mask portrays the souls of women who have become demons due to obsession or jealousy. Plays in which a person may wear the hannya mask include Aoi no Ue and Dōjōji; its use in these two plays, two of the most famous of the Noh repertoire, and its distinctive and frightening appearance make it one of the most recognizable Noh masks.
The Hannya mask is said to be demonic and dangerous but also sorrowful and tormented, displaying the complexity of human emotions. When the actor looks straight ahead, the mask appears frightening and angry; when tilted slightly down, the face of the demon appears to be sorrowful, as though crying. The oldest hannya mask is dated 1558.
Hannya masks appear in various skin tones: a white mask indicates a woman of aristocratic status (such as Rokujō in Aoi no Ue), a red mask depicts a low-class woman (seen in Dōjōji), and the darkest red depicts true demons (revealed after appearing as women, as in Momijigari and Kurozuka).