By Yayoi Kawatoko / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterA high school student wearing a noh mask all the time? The very image would probably make you do a double take. This concept can be found on the cover and inside of “Nohmen Joshi no Hanako-san” (Noh Masked High School Girl Hanako) — a manga comedy published by Kodansha Ltd.
“Nohmen Joshi no Hanako-san” is currently being serialized in a comic magazine. The first two volumes of the manga, also from the publisher, have sold more than 170,000 copies, including e-books.
The work has also featured among the recommended works in “Kono Manga ga Sugoi” (This manga is great), an annual publication by Takarajimasha, Inc. regarded as a benchmark of what’s popular in the manga world.
According to the author, Ryo Oda, it all started with a question: What if there were a contemporary woman who embodies the spirit of a ko-omote, a noh theater mask used to depict young women?
The idiosyncratic heroine, Hanako Izumi, is a high school student born into a family that passes down noh masks over generations. For as long as she can remember, Hanako has honored the family tradition of wearing a ko-omote every day — even when others are around, leaving them unable to see her face.
Hanako’s fellow high school students recoil at the sight of her, and call her “nohmen joshi” (noh masked girl) behind her back. Yet she nonchalantly goes about her school life.
“I really wanted to create something people would take note of,” Oda said. “Then I came across noh masks. It’s been going to plan ever since.”
The character Hanako was born four years ago. Oda once leaned toward fantasy as an amateur mangaka, but Tokyo’s selection as the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games host city led her to realize that the next big trend will be “wa” — things traditionally Japanese.
Oda started attending lectures on traditional Japanese culture, including kabuki, bunraku puppet plays and various other things, before eventually landing on noh masks as the theme of her next work.
The publisher to which Oda planned to present her new work for a screening only accepted eight-page storyboards. Wondering what she could do to get readers excited about noh masks in such a limited number of pages, she sketched a series of trial works and finally came up with an unusual combination: a high school student and a noh mask representing a young woman. Oda knew she could easily portray a high schooler through the use of a uniform and a few background details.
Building up the character
Oda made her professional debut with “Nohmen Joshi no Hanako-san,” which was a one-off work at first. It earned her two awards: the Super Character Comic Taisho and Yahoo! Bookstore Award.
However, this initial work was criticized for lacking a strong protagonist, with Hanako presented as a typical contemporary high school girl, albeit in a noh mask. Oda thus modified the heroine when the manga was serialized, basing her on what would happen if a girl represented by a ko-omote mask lived as a high school girl in today’s world.
This new Hanako speaks politely and cares for other people, suggesting she is well-bred. For her, wearing the mask is a matter of course that has nothing to do with tradition. She keeps the mask on even while eating lunch or sprinting in PE class. Aside from the mask and the strong impression it creates, this heroine is simply an earnest student going about her business at school. This contrast keeps readers laughing.
Anna Yoneyama, the manga’s editor, says the work is a hot topic on social media. Comments from fans include, “What on earth is this character?” and “I want to be friends with Hanako.”
Oda has become fascinated with noh masks as a result of her research. The author has interviewed noh performers, visited study groups at universities and even begun carving her own masks. Such activities have led her to discover a gap between traditional culture and contemporary society — one she is seriously interested in discussing in her manga.
However, Oda is trying as much as possible to avoid this theme in “Nohmen Joshi no Hanako-san.”
“My interest [in exploring the gap] is anathema to the protagonist,” the author said. “This is a comedy, and straying into commentary would become meddlesome.”
Oda is also particular about the way she draws noh masks.
“When I draw Hanako’s up close, I always refer to photos,” she said. “I discover something new every time — for example, how shade falls onto the mask.”
Noh masks are supposed to be expressionless, but Hanako seems to express a rich array of emotions, at times smiling or growing angry.
“Really? I never meant to draw the mask with different expressions ... It’s strange, isn’t it?” Oda said in response to this observation.