by Carlos Gomez (aka, The Lost Hylian)
The Happy Mask Salesman is considered by many to be one of the creepiest characters in all of the Zelda multiverse. That list also includes hands coming out of toilets, Great Fairies, and even Tingle. I would argue no NPC causes more debate and speculation than the Happy Mask Salesman. Perhaps it’s his obsession with mask collecting, or perhaps it’s how his temper can flare when you do not meet his requests. Perhaps it’s the Mario Mask on his pack or the fact that at one time he held Majora’s Mask. What is it about this particular NPC that makes our minds spin with wonder? Who is the Happy Mask Salesman?
Perhaps to understand him better, we must look to some historical inspiration.
The history of wearing masks in Japan for religious rituals is estimated to date back to the country’s Jomon period, an era spanning as far back as 10,000 B.C. These crude masks were initially made from shells and simple pottery. In ancient times, they were seen as the physical embodiment of spirits (sound familiar?). This continued on for thousands of years, eventually evolving into use for festivals, Kagura dance performances, and theatre.
The Noh masks are perhaps the best representation of the theater masks; they are carved in such a way to change expression depending on the shadow cast on various angles of the mask. Though I can’t say for sure that any one mask in the Zelda series imitates a Japanese mask. I definitely see some that were possibly inspired. An example of this is the Keaton Mask from the series vs. the Kistune mask. The Kitsune mask--a fox--represents the contradictory nature in the individual and is popular in Japanese pop culture. The Keaton Mask in Ocarina of Time perhaps does the same. The guard at the base of Death Mountain wants it for his son, but he wears it. In Majora’s Mask, a man who has been turned into a boy wears one while sneaking around town. The duality in both of these characters’ nature makes the Keaton Mask perfect for their wear. If you want to learn more about the history of artistic masks in Japan, click here.
With such a prevalent history of masks in Japanese culture, it should be no surprise that a Happy Mask Shop appears in Ocarina of Time. This is our first exposure to the Happy Mask Salesman. Instead of selling Link a mask, the owner hires our young hero to be his salesman, thus beginning the mask trading side-quest in Ocarina. If you recall, completing all of the mask quests will result in your attaining the Mask of Truth, which, according to the Happy Mask Salesman, came from the Sheikah. This mask allows Link to talk to Gossip Stones, gaining valuable insight and information. This alone makes me wonder about the Happy Mask Salesman and how he could attain such an item--that, coupled with his random fits of anger when a mask has not been sold, shows a darker side. There is a sense of obsession when it comes to mask collecting, as if the smiling face of the salesman is a mask itself, the plastic grin hiding the roiling madness just beneath the jolly surface. He actually reminds me a bit of the Sméagol vs. Gollum dynamic.
The duality of the Mask Salesman, if hinted at in Ocarina of Time, is fully realized in Majora’s Mask. The fact alone that he held in his possession Majora’s Mask should show the depth of his need. Majora’s Mask is arguably the most powerful relic outside of the Triforce itself. The mask was able to bring down the moon to destroy Termina and gave the Skull Kid unimaginable powers, turning him into the Ganondorf of the doomed Clock Town. The sheer fact that the salesman was able to obtain it raises many questions about him and his abilities.
Link first encounters him after having been transformed into the Deku Scrub, where the salesman says the iconic line, “You’ve met with a terrible fate, haven’t you?” Though not present during certain events, he seems to have a vast knowledge of Link, the magic of the masks, and the goings-on in Termina, even though he never seems to leave the clock tower. He offers to return Link to normal; in exchange, he wants Majora’s Mask returned to him. He teaches Link the “Song of Healing” to remove the Deku Scrub’s mask, thus sealing the spirit of the dead Deku Scrub inside. This made me as a player wonder if every mask on his pack contains the spirit of someone deceased, captured beings used for their power.
The Happy Mask Salesman’s knowledge and reach seem to transcend death. If you let the game play out and die on the third day from the moon falling, something interesting happens. As the moon crashes into Termina, a wave of fire consumes you. As you die, you hear the Happy Mask Salesman laugh, repeating his iconic line: “You’ve met with a terrible fate, haven't you?” Link wakes up back on Day One, with the salesman asking “How did you do?” There is a sense that he knows of your failure and that he himself brings you back to life.
When Link does not have Majora’s Mask, the salesman immediately goes into a fit of rage, choking and shaking Link. He tells Link that Majora’s Mask had an evil and wicked power bestowed upon it; the mask had been sealed away in a place of shadow forever to ensure its evil could never be reached. Yet the Happy Mask Salesman somehow obtained it before it was stolen by the Skull Kid… For someone to acquire such a mask in such a place cannot be underestimated. Think of all Link had to do to get the Triforce in A Link to the Past. It’s important to note that the Happy Mask Salesman has a certain reverie for the mask. As he goes on to describe the darkness he feels inside the mask, his body rocks in apparent bliss.
All of the Happy Mask Salesman’s little oddities in action and expression made me wonder, “Does he want the mask because of its power or the power because it's in the mask? Is he a curious collector or something more sinister?”
In the end, we never truly know the Happy Mask Salesman’s goal. If you recall during the ending sequence of the game when he finally holds Majora’s Mask, he states, “Oh… So the evil has left after all…” His face isn’t shown in the scene, yet the way the text plays across screen makes it seem as if he is disappointed, as if the mask somehow lost its luster. He then walks off into the distance, vanishing before Link’s eyes--but not before telling Link he needs to get back to Hyrule.
Another item of note is that the Happy Mask Salesman technically exists in two timelines. He is not only in the Child Timeline but is also featured in the Downfall Timeline, as seen in Oracle of Ages’ Kingdom of Labrina hundreds of years after the events of Ocarina of Time. Though the handhelds have a little more freedom in what they do as far as story and cameos, this is technically canon.
This is a pretty impressive résumé for someone who just collects and sells masks.
To recap: The Happy Mask Salesman has lived in multiple timelines. He has used magic to take souls and place them into masks. He is able to gain Majora’s Mask, which had been sealed away in an impenetrable darkness. He seems to know Link is able to turn back time, perhaps even doing so himself to save him from death on the Third Day. He has a keen sense of all that is happening in Termina and even that you are needed in Hyrule, despite his staying locked in the clock tower. Whether he is a deity or mystical traveler, we may never know. The mask that is his smile will always stoke the imagination and keep us forever asking, “Who is the Happy Mask Salesman?”