Ferocious Love

What One Woman's Inner Demons Can Teach Us About Our Own Humanity

Cristina Ann Correa

A beautiful widow looking for love. A dashing playboy fallen from grace.

Despite being centuries old, these personalities from Aoi-no-Ue, a classical Japanese Nōh drama, sound like the leading roles of a modern movie blockbuster. In a day where digital romances grow more quickly than weeds after a storm, this timeless tale of love, betrayal, jealousy and revenge grips us in the most tender places of our heart.

Derived from The Tale of Genji, the world's first novel, Aoi-no-Ue unfolds the emotional complexities of Lady Rokujō, an elegant and sophisticated noblewoman whose ferocious love ultimately devours and consumes her being.

After meeting Hikaru Genji, the emperor's tenacious and outcast son, Lady Rokujō becomes hopelessly and fervently enamored. Handsome and self-possessed, Genji is a notorious womanizer and married to Lady Aoi, the daughter of the Senior Minister of State.

True to form, Genji finds his way to new mistresses, leaving Lady Rokujō heartbroken and alone with her emotions. Angry with Genji for his infidelity and pregnant with his son, Lady Aoi publicly humiliates Lady Rokujō by running her carriage off the road.

Torn by pride and pain, Lady Rokujō retreats in misery and becomes engulfed by jealousy. Reciprocating Lady Aoi's anger, Lady Rokujō's moment of darkness transforms her soul through its rage and fury. Determined to enact revenge, the newly demonized Lady Rokujō possesses Lady Aoi's soul, sending Genji into desperation.

While the endings of Aoi-no-Ue differ depending on interpretation, the light within each character is restored. Given that most, if not all, humans experience heartbreak at least once in their lives, this resolution is a glimmering testament to the resilience of humanity.

As part of its Yokai: Ghost and Demons of Japan exhibition, opening in November 2019, the Museum of International Folk Art will display an expertly-crafted White Hannya mask, traditionally used to depict Lady Rokujō in performances of Aoi-no-Ue.

Carved from cypress wood that has been cut and dried for 75 years, first-generation mask maker Ichiyu Terai, of Kyoto, Japan, skillfully and lovingly reveals the multifaceted emotions of Lady Rokujō as White Hannya.

Viewed at eye level, we are unapologetically confronted by White Hannya's tormented face. The sadness and angst in her brows are contradicted by her direct, unflinching gaze. What was once a refined and composed hairstyle is now marked by unruly and loose tendrils flowing around her golden demon horns. Jarring fangs overshadow her feminine, red lips, creating a grimace that is both ferocious and sophisticated.

Stepping closer and to one side, White Hannya is transformed even further. Shadows cast by light on her deeply carved eye sockets and strong jawline illuminate the mutation of despair into fury. The natural white paint, which denotes Lady Rokujō's aristocratic social position, gradually transitions into a darker, more menacing skin tone as it approaches the lower half of her face. This patina gives White Hannya's skin a scaly, almost reptilian texture. The gold leaf on her bulging eyes and masculine teeth is also tarnished, reflecting the darkness which threatens to completely overtake her inner peace. A careful examination of the back of the mask reveals a black, painted interior that sharply contrasts the more illuminated front.

This internal darkness is amplified when White Hannya is viewed from above. Her intensely-staring eyes become overshadowed by strong musculature that supports aggressive, bull-like horns. Black marks on White Hannya's forehead and eyes emphasize the pain and fatigue of lamenting over being ignored and spurned by her lover. The sharp points of her golden fangs become prominent and ready to bite anyone who attempts to come too close to her vulnerable heart.

When viewed from below, however, we become mesmerized by White Hannya's humanity trapped within this dangerous version of herself. We experience the fullness of her sorrow as she mourns the loss of her lover, alone and broken. Looking deeply into her eyes, we can identify the pain she feels with pain of our own. Ichiyu Terai has effectively helped us to travel back in time, connecting us with generations of mask makers who have worked passionately to convey Lady Rokujō's story.

Love, perhaps the most powerful emotion and word on the planet, can pull us from the most extreme depths and elevate us to magnificent heights. It is with this knowledge that we can intimately connect with White Hannya as Lady Rokujō as she struggles to balance her innermost desires with the wisdom of reality. By confronting her emotional demons face-to-face, we allow ourselves an opportunity to recall our own varying experiences with heartache and the multitude of ways we have resiliently continued on with our individual journeys.

White Hannya will be on display as part of Yokai: Ghosts and Demons of Japan beginning in December 2019 at the Museum of International Folk Art.