In Japanese folklore the female demon (oni) Hannya figures prominently. Often depicted in traditional Noh and Bunraku plays using a wooden mask of a fierce and grimacing horned demon, this malicious entity may be Japan’s most well-known demon.
An ancient legend recalls how the female Hannya persecuted all who attempted to pass through the Rashomon gate of Kyoto. A staunch samurai named Watanabe no Tsuna decided to lay in wait for the demon in order to slay it, until he was eventually persuaded by a beautiful young woman to escort her into town. As they traveled, Watanabe happened to glance over his shoulder and saw the young woman transforming into a terrifying demon. As the demon then laid hold of Watanabe, he quickly wielded his sword and cut off the monster’s arm. As Hannya fled screaming, Watanabe carefully wrapped the severed arm and later hid it in a secured chest.
After much time had passed and the event had faded into memory, Hannya disguised herself as Watanabe’s aunt and thereby convinced him to display his “trophy” of Hannya’s limb. Upon seeing her arm, the demon immediately reverted into her hideous appearance and, grabbing the arm, fled from the house of Watanabe.
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.)