What do these masks mean and what can they do?
Often times you’ll see something from the real world incorporated into various mediums of entertainment – of art. Something that everyone can enjoy and deliver to us a deeper connection to the story being told. To the performance being shown to us, something that would give us a much deeper appreciation for said creation. We’ve seen stories told to us through theater, through movies, through music, and even through video games. With storylines so great, they can rival some of the greatest stories told to us in books, and with the latest technology – most movies! All of these inspirations come from things so ancient, most forget they even exist. They are embedded in various cultures, religions, practices, and rituals.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits is the latest title to include aspects from various ancient cultures to help mold the story that’s being told. You’re probably thinking to yourself right now “whatchu talking ’bout Willis?”. I’m talking about masks. You read that right, masks! By now you’ve seen all of the promos for this game, and most likely some gameplay for Kena: BoS, and in those videos, pictures, and even tweets, you’ll see our hero don a wooden mask that looks like a fox. This isn’t something that’s made up just for the game, this is something that’s as real as the screen you’re looking at. Masks are used in many cultures, but for the purpose of this article, and with some knowledge of Japanese culture, I’ll be making a short comparison between the game and Japanese culture.
Masks in ancient Japanese culture (and even practiced today) were mainly used in Japanese theater but were also worn for different reasons and to represent their traditions and beliefs. There are several types of masks used in Japanese theater, below are the types and what they are primarily used for:
Noh – Traditionally used by dancers to represent men, women, young, and old, and also to represent different demons, yokai and deities. Every mask has a different facial expression based on the character in the play. These masks came into existence around the 14th century.
Tengu – This mask represents the demon Tengu, who used to be a bird but is now in human form. He is depicted as having a red face with a long nose and is often represented in Noh theater and Shinto practices with having wings on his back. The demon Tengu is known to also embody the spirit of the mountains, which the Japanese people fear.
Oni – This mask is used in different ways, which is interesting. It’s used in a yearly festival to represent the evil forces that tend to cause misfortune for people. There’s a festival every year called Setsubun or “bean throwing festival” in which children throw beans at the family member wearing the Oni mask to ward them off. According to tradition, this brings good fortune when it’s performed every year, and this also celebrates the changing of seasons from Winter to Spring. The other way this mask is used is in a festival called Namahage. This particular festival takes place in Northern Japan to scare misbehaving children. In return, the Oni gets food and sake. My only question is…where do I sign up?!
Kitsune – also known as the fox mask, is another famous mask that’s frequently seen around Japan and in entertainment. Mostly seen in Shinto rituals and festivals, Kitsune is the yokai known as the messenger for Inari, the goddess of rice and trade. This mask is worn during the rituals to bring about a good harvest. One of the powers of Kitsune is to transform into a human, most known in the form of a young and beautiful woman. Kitsune is also known for playing tricks on people, and depending on the respect one gives it, it can either be peaceful or evil. Although there are many iterations of the Kitsune mask, you can spot this mask very easily by its red and white coloring. You’ve also seen this mask in anime such as Naruto and Demon Slayer.
The interesting thing about Kena: Bridge of Spirits is that the masks that are used are connected to both the people and the environment in this particular world. Every mask has some sort of power behind it, some sort of critical purpose, and an intended way to be used. In the world of Kena, the inhabitants of the Village carve wooden masks when someone passes away. These masks are placed at the Mask Shrine to honor the person the village has lost. When the mask has decayed and returned to dust, this symbolizes the villager’s spirit moving on in peace. However, some spirits become tangled in their memories and regrets, causing their mask to linger. When carving these masks, the village Mask Maker takes inspiration from the personality/nature of the villager who has passed away, much like the Japanese masks.
Meet Rusu. Rusu the huntsman is an archer and a hunter, he watches over many of the village’s inhabitants, like an eagle flying high above their territory. Rusu’s mask features elements of a bird of prey, and since he’s a hunter and an archer, much of these details such as his precise focus and attention to detail are reflected in his mask. Rusu is just one of the spirit guides that Kena will come across in her journey.
Just as there are masks that can be used for good, there are also masks that can be used for evil. In Emberlab’s latest promotional trailer, we see our young heroine Kena going toe-to-toe with a formidable foe, much bigger than she is. This foe, who also may be the narrator for the trailer, is seen with a wooden mask that grants him powers – powers that we aren’t aware of just yet (you have to play the game!). We also see another foe that also wears a mask that grants her the powers of flight, powers that may be similar to Rusu in the sense that she’s a highly skilled archer.
In Kena: BoS, the masks are made to represent those that have passed on. These are carved and placed in the Mask Shrine to honor them – and here’s the interesting part, when the masks decay and turn to dust, it means the spirit has passed on. For the masks that don’t whither, it means some spirits become tangled in their memories and regrets, causing their mask to linger. A soul that would roam for eternity until it finds peace. As you journey through different villages and gaining valuable experience on your path to becoming a master spirit guide, why not take a moment to enjoy the craftsmanship behind the many masks that cross your path? Enjoy the game, enjoy the story, and most importantly – enjoy the ride!