This very striking and expressive Japanese gigaku mask depicts Karura, one of the fourteen characters in the gigaku, a religious dance-drama that was performed for the Japanese royal court at Buddhist temple ceremonies from the 7th to the 10th century. In the performance, Karura is a mythical giant bird that protects the Buddhist faith. His features include pierced, close-set eyes, which stare down toward the tip of a prominent beak that grasps a round bead, and a cock’s comb that projects from the crown of the head. Holes covering the top of the head originally secured tufts of featherlike hair. The mask is constructed in hollow-core dry lacquer, one of the favored methods for making temple sculpture in 8th-century Japan, and bears traces of the original black lacquer coating and red, green and blue pigments.
The precise nature of gigaku (literally, “skill music”) is not clear, but it appears to have been a dramatic form of religious dance and procession performed to the accompaniment of simple musical arrangements on flute, gong, and drum. The masks were robustly expressive and basically comic in nature, as it seems the purpose of the dance-drama was to inject a note of comic relief into the solemn, time-consuming rituals of Buddhism. Gigaku was introduced into Japan from China in A.D. 612 and developed along with the spread of Buddhism in Japan.