When we say “menpō” we generally refer to the mask of the samurai armor that covers half face. The technical name would be me-no-shita-men, meaning “mask for the face under the eyes”. There are other types of menpō, like the sōmen for the whole face or the hanbō for the chin only, but when we come to collecting, the most common masks are certainly these “half-faces”.
Before buying a menpō, one should probably know few things. Here you are my five advices…
1. Look for an interesting face
Menpō derive from the Japanese theatre masks and they generally represent some kind of characters. The most common expression is the “fierce” one, called ressei-men, with teeth on view and mustaches, but there are many others. My advice: regardless of the menpō’s type, look for an interesting face and for expressive and unusual lines.
2. Iron over leather. Iron over lacquer.
Menpō are generally made of iron, but the surface is often covered with some kind of lacquer. You can use a magnet to check if under the lacquer you have real iron, but you might understand that also by the mask’s weight in your hand and from its thickness.
Also, note that un-lacquered iron requires more work, as details can not be left rough. For this reason, nice iron menpō are generally preferred by collectors and prices can be higher. There are exceptions, of course: if you came across a lacquered menpō designed by Noguchi Zesai, buy it for me, please.
3. Ironwork is the key
As working, chiselling and applying iron is difficult, the more detailed and sharp is the ironwork, the more expensive the menpō is going to be.
4. Who’s menpō?
As an advanced collector, you will learn how to recognize armorers’ schools by the menpō’s features. Also, you will come across many signed masks which will help you in your buying strategy. Fortunately, signatures are generally genuine and can be trusted, but be always careful when you encounter a big name!
5. Menpō’s appendix
Virtually, all menpō were fitted with a protection for the throat, called tare or yodare-kake, attached on the lower rim. If a menpō is missing this part, don’t be too upset: it’s just an appendix and the important part is the mask itself! Let’s say it’s like buying a painting without a frame…