Rare look at masks from Kasuga Shrine

If ''Made in Japan'' evokes visions of sushi, samurai movies, or Sony Walkmans, this may be the right time to visit the Museum of Fine Arts, where an exhibition of ''Bugaku Treasures of the Kasuga Shrine'' (through Oct. 14) offers a vivid reminder of the venerable legacy of Japanese culture.

The exhibition includes more than 70 perfectly preserved masks, costumes, and musical instruments used in the courtly rituals of Bugaku, many dating from the first half of the eighth century. These objects are part of an unbroken tradition sustained for centuries at the Kasuga Shrine, a sacred building originally constructed in 768.

The Japanese respect for the past is evident in the constant reworking of its symbols - the shrine is rebuilt at regular intervals, while new but exact facsimiles of the fragile ancient robes are reproduced for performance.

In addition to their theatrical use, the stylized carved and lacquered wooden masks are highly expressive works of sculpture, while the robes impress with their delicate workmanship and brilliant colors. Divided into red- and green-based colors, for ''Left and Right'' style dances, they assimilate the varied Asian and Eastern cultures that influenced developing Japanese custom. Seen for the first time outside the shrine at the recent Olympics Arts Festival in Los Angeles, these fragile objects continue their cosmopolitan journey - providing exquisite evidence that Japan's aesthetic heritage extends far beyond imported '80s tidbits of Toyotas and tempura.

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