Oni Masks: The Devil Masks of Japan

There are many ways to express one’s self. It can be through words, by voicing out one’s opinions, outlooks in life, and feelings. The intensity of expressing one’s self through words can also be accentuated either by whispering or by shouting. Another way of expressing one’s self is how one acts. By being timid, people would know that a person may be shy or afraid. However, by being violent, people would know that a person is feeling extreme rage. But how would one know just through the use of their eyes how a person is feeling? This can be seen by the expressions on one’s face. A smile, a frown, a sad face, or an angry face can give way to let another person know how one is feeling. No sound or even action is needed as the face itself can tell the emotions of a person.

On the other hand, there are those who wish to hide their expressions and what better way to achieve this than by wearing a mask. The main purpose of a mask, after all, is to hide the face of the person behind it. There are different kinds of masks all over the world, designed to cater a certain expression or a specific character. In Japan, there are also several types of masks that people wear especially during festivals and in theaters to portray a certain character or individual. One of the more well-known masks that people traditional wear during plays in theaters and during festivals in the summer months, also known as matsuri in Japanese, is an oni mask.

The Origins of Oni Masks

 First off, one should know what an oni is in order to understand the purpose of an oni mask. A type of yokai based on a Japanese folklore, an oni is seen as an evil being that roams the spirit world. It can be in the form of demons, trolls, devils, or ogres. They are among the famous characters in arts, literature, and theater in the Land of the Sun. They are part of a series of legendary creatures and spirits, along with kappa, kitsune, yurei, and tengu.

While the specific details on the appearance of oni may different. The general description of oni creatures are scary, hideous, and giants that look like ogres. They are depicted as creatures with wild hair or hair in disarray, claws as sharp as a knife, and two long horns that grow usually from the top of their heads or temples. These creatures can be considered humanoids but their features are definitely not that of a normal human. They may have three or more eyes and have more than the general number of fingers and toes.

With their skin ranging in different colors, usually a vibrant red and a bright blue hue, oni creatures are portrayed wearing loincloths made of tiger skin. The one item that most, if not all, oni typically carry is an iron club, also known as kanabo in Japanese. Due to this imagery, an expression of “oni with an iron club” was made, also known as oni ni kanabo in Japanese, which basically means to be undefeatable or invincible. Others may also perceive this expression as “strong beyond strong.” In addition, another meaning to this is to be too powerful or to go overboard.

The term “oni” is believed to have come from the word “on,” which is the on’yomi reading of the character “隠.” This character generally translates to the act of hiding or concealing. This is definitely an apt description of oni as they are basically spirits or gods that are invisible to the naked eye of human beings. They are the causes of disease, disasters, and other horrible things and events. Furthermore, they are also able to take on different forms in order to deceive and, more often than not, gobble up human beings. Hence, another term used to describe them is “ghost,” or “gui” in Chinese, as they are formless beings.

On the other hand, the oni characters were then developed and anthropomorphized. Therefore, they are no longer invisible and now take on a more ogre-like form. It is said that their solid form was partly due to syncretism with beings that were imported by Buddhism. These beings include the Indian yaksha and rakshasa and the hungry ghosts known as gaki in Japanese.

  In the noh theater, oni creatures are portrayed by actors by wearing oni masks and costumes. The masks are usually huge with red or blue faces. With horns sticking out by the temples of the mask, the actors play the demon with much ease as their faces are already covered by the oni masks. The design of the oni masks vary depending on the play being acted upon but the general idea is still the same. Oni masks are a little bit similar to hannya masks, wherein both characters play evil roles.

While its origins point to the oni being evil, its demon portrayal has mellowed down in recent times. In fact, oni creatures now are sometimes depicted as protective beings. Men would wear costumes during festivals with oni masks to apparently ward off any evil spirits or bad luck. There are now also buildings in Japan with roof tiles designed with the face of an oni, believed to ward off bad luck.

Art of Oni for Sale: Drawings, Wallpapers, and Mask Designs

Because oni, in general, come in different forms, there are many ways to portray oni in the form of art. Especially now that the oni phenomenon has grown into the modern and popular culture, more and more people want to have arts in the imagery of oni. One form of art that is slowly growing in popularity are drawings of oni on any paper or canvass. These drawings are believed to be posted on the walls of believers who think that the drawing of a face of an oni would negate bad luck in the place. Some people who are avid fans of oni may even frame the drawing. While it does seem a bit scary to look at, various drawings of oni still show the artistry and imagination of their painters or artists.

One more product that is being used to show the imagery of oni is wallpaper. Some people may mistake this as wallpaper being put up in a room, which kind of seems a bit creepy, to say the least. The wallpaper in point in this scenario is wallpaper on phones and computers. Many avid fans of oni or just dark creatures in general love the art of oni. Due to the advancement of technology, there are now various gadgets such as mobile phones, computers, and laptops. One of the many ways to personalize these gadgets is by setting wallpaper on the screen of the gadget. Hence, people who love the art of oni also put these wallpapers with the imagery of oni on the screens of their gadgets.

Because oni masks are being used by actors and some people who celebrate in summer festivals, it is no wonder that there are also oni masks being sold. This may be especially useful for people who cosplay as oni creatures since the beginning of the character’s popularity among the younger generation. People who also like attending Halloween parties and dressing up as oni creatures would benefit from knowing that there are different kinds of oni masks being sold.

The style of a piece of mask differs depending on the character. One oni character is the Daikijin. A Daikijin oni mask is generally composed of a white face with two horns on its temples it has golden eyes and a huge nose. Its mask is also composed of a wide-open mouth that shows two of its golden fangs. This mask is used during a ceremony or a festival to protect against evil spirits. Another option for an oni mask is a Waka-Gokusotsu mask. Known as “Yang gaoler in Hell,” this mask consists of a flesh skin, a pair of angry, golden eyes, and a huge nose. Its mouth is also wide open with two of its fangs peeking out. These masks are made of different types of materials, one of which may be resin.

For an oni mask with wild hair, one may opt to go for a Namahage mask.  On the 15th of the month of January every year, the Namahage festival is celebrated. held in Akita prefecture, the Namahage festival consists of young people wearing the Namahage mask. They visit villages and tell the young children to help their parents and also to study hard. This mask is bright red in color with its long black hair in disarray. Its teeth are not sharp, rather they are square-shaped except for the two fangs sticking out. Another option for an oni mask is the Syoki mask. With its face bright red, the masks consist of two large black horns on its temples, a pair of golden eyes with black pupils, and a pair of golden eyebrows shaped like clouds. Its teeth are golden while the fangs are curved and sticking out of its row of teeth.

Oni Concept Even in Video Games: Genji Oni in Heroes of the Storm

Due to the growing popularity of the oni phenomenon, it is no wonder that even the concept of oni has reached not just mangas and anime but also video games. One of the many video games that have incorporated the concept of oni in their play is the Heroes of the Storm. The video game itself offers features, one of which being the skins. For the oni concept, the Heroes of the Storm offers a Genji Oni skin for those who wish are fans of the oni concept. Of course, there are steps so as to achieve the goal of obtaining this skin.

Truly, the idea of oni and oni masks has grown to appeal to the younger crowd. While they may not understand the full concept of oni in the traditional context, it is still somehow great to know that the younger generation is taking an interest in a traditional folklore. Even with the advancement of technology and information, the Japanese youth still take interest on something that may not be entirely real. Furthermore, they still let their imagination and artistry run wild by creating more forms of art in the shape of oni.