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Behind The Mask

KEIJI KOMORI IS PRESERVING SAGA WOODCRAFT TRADITIONS



Amid the peaceful landscapes of Kyushu lies Saga Prefecture, renowned for its traditional craftsmanship, such as Arita and Imari Porcelain and Karatsu pottery. Blessed by the sea, forest, and mountains, Saga is rich in resources. Here, also, lies an age-old artistry that captures a signature Japanese mystical and enigmatic essence — the masterful craftsmanship of Keiji Komori's furyumen mask and his wood carving workshop, Sugicho, located in Kashima, Saga.


Furyumen masks are traditionally used in the art of Men Buryu, a traditional masked dance performance steeped in Saga Prefecture's cultural heritage. In this age-old art form, dancers don masks and engage in spirited performances accompanied by the rhythmic beats of flutes, drums, and bells.


It’s theorized that Men Buryu's origins trace back to the Warring States period, when warriors adorned with demon masks led nighttime raids, beating drums and gongs to secure victory. Other theories say it was strictly a ceremonial dance, blending elements of prayer and supplication for abundant harvests, rainfall, and the success of Shinto rituals.


The Furyumen masks symbolize a profound connection to Saga's history and spirituality, embodying mystical significance that transcends generations. Through Men Buryu, Saga Prefecture pays homage to its storied past while celebrating the enduring legacy of its cultural traditions.



Despite initially pursuing a career in the arts as an art teacher, Komori's realization of the dwindling number of skilled sculptors capable of carving Furyumen masks compelled him to redirect his focus. He recognized his familial legacy. As the fifth generation of Sugicho to inherit the art and technique of wood carving, he felt a deep-seated responsibility to carry forward this cherished tradition.


In crafting Furyumen masks, Komori meticulously selects materials tailored to their intended use, whether for dancing or decorative purposes.

He favors paulownia wood for masks intended for dancing because it's lightweight, but he acknowledges the wood's susceptibility to scratches and lack of durability. To mitigate this, Komori employs lacquer to fortify the wood's resilience and enhance its natural beauty — effectively capturing the essence of the depicted ogre's power.


Decorative masks are made from camphor wood, prized for its exquisite grain and fragrance. Working with camphor wood demands exceptional carving skills to fully unveil its inherent beauty. Through Komori’s hands, these materials transcend their physical properties, embodying the enduring spirit of Saga's people and their profound connection to the region. After selecting the timber to craft, a large piece of wood is carefully sawed out using a specialized band saw called an obinoko.


This lays the foundation for the subsequent stages of the crafting process. Using a tataki nomi (carving knife), the rough shaping of the mask begins, with each stroke carefully considered. As the contours appear, a finishing knife is employed to refine the details, ensuring the mask's final appearance meets the exacting standards of tradition and craftsmanship.

Each piece of wood possesses its unique grain pattern, which informs and guides the direction of the carving. Komori describes a careful dialogue with the wood as he progresses through the sculpture, making adjustments as needed to ensure the expression of the demon portrayed in the Furyumen aligns harmoniously with the timber's natural characteristics.


Sugicho is the sole traditional woodcraft workshop with a five-generation legacy in producing Furyumen masks. Yet, its expertise extends far beyond masks. From crafting custom items like kabuto (ornamental samurai helmets) and hina dolls for Girl's Day to intricate signboards, nameplates and Buddhist statues, Sugicho's craftsmanship knows no bounds. This adaptability is a testament to Sugicho's unwavering dedication to preserving and advancing the art of wood carving, ensuring its enduring relevance in contemporary times.


Komori stresses the importance of adaptation while staying true to tradition. His fulfillment lies in satisfying customers and perpetuating traditions, thus bridging generational divides and preserving time-honored Japanese craft techniques.

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