Tom on Japan

Onnagata and Three Centuries of Actor Prints

Onnagata Three Centuries

Many of us may think of Kabuki theater as a dramatic form long positioned at or near the apex of Japanese culture. That’s undoubtedly where it resides today but its origin tells a different story. Kabuki is generally thought to have begun in 1603 essentially as a marketing device to procure male customers, initially for a woman named Izumo no Okuni who danced up a storm along the Kamo River in Kyoto. Other women (and men) latched on to the idea and soon the dancing turned into multi-actor plays performed on makeshift stages, though the plays were hardly sophisticated. Plots often were thinly disguised invitations to hire, and actors of both genders were available to interested onlookers.

This new entertainment soon spread beyond Kyoto, and carried in its wake rowdy devotees given to conduct and morality highly distasteful to the government (the Tokugawa shogunate). Women players were considered ultimately responsible, and by 1629 the shogunate had had enough and barred women from kabuki performance. (The English definition of kabuki is a combination of “song,” “dance” and “behavior well outside social norms.”)


Since female roles didn’t vanish from the stage along with female actors who was going to take their place? The initial solution was to substitute young boys. Their voices and bodies weren’t yet fully formed and so could be adapted to female roles more easily than those of men. But before long the original problem resurfaced, this time in solicitations to the boys. In 1652 the issue was resolved permanently—female roles were to be the sole province of men, regardless of performance issues such as their ability to portray women convincingly.

But performance issues couldn’t be exorcised by state diktat, so this shift led to the rise of onnagata, male actors who would devote their lives to specializing in female roles. Exceptionally talented onnagata were to become cultural icons as kabuki came together as an art form and began to abandon its humble origins. Onnagata playing the highest ranked courtesan classification (tayu) were especially prized by kabuki fans, who snapped up inexpensive woodblock print “souvenirs” commemorating both performer and role.

Think of the difficulties inherent in this art. Men needed to sound like women, look like women (in costume and hairstyle), and act like women in bearing and manner. On stage onnagata had to be so convincing that no one would think in terms of what a great job they were doing in their transgender role. To audiences they were women.

In fact both in their stage roles and as depicted in woodblock prints onnagata had an outsized influence on women’s fashion. Particularly beautiful kimono costume designs along with attention-grabbing coiffure were assiduously copied in the non-theatrical world. Many women looked to onnagata as role models—perhaps as many men looked to James Bond in the Bond film heyday. So onnagata are important to any attempt to understand Japanese culture.

Many of the actor prints in our Multimedia Print Presentations in fact depict onnagata. Words just won’t adequately portray what woodblock prints can: the excitement—even awe—elicited by kabuki’s sometimes extreme makeup and wild facial expressions, all of which are true to kabuki’s original meaning on those Kyoto stages 400 years ago.

Onnagata – More about KabukiMore about Kabuki

After its early obsession with sex kabuki began to expand its repertoire. One popular new theme was dramatization of scandal, such as double suicides by lovers. Another amounted to defiance of authority—a daring trend which needed to be mindful of strict censorship. Contemporary events were forbidden subject matter, as was anything critical of the government. Woodblock print publishers faced the same problem, needing the censor’s imprimatur on their print product. Both solved this problem in an identical way, which was to adapt roles, events, or woodblock print subjects to long-ago history or tales, each well known to their merchant class patrons who were sure to get the message. This fact leads one to wonder whether censors were culturally unsophisticated, paid for looking the other way, aware of the subterfuge but uninterested in following up, or perhaps in some cases too meek to do anything about it—particularly when dealing with strong personalities in the theatrical and print worlds. Regardless, pliable censors may have had a serviceable excuse in the thin veneer of the past masking the present.

Actor Lineage

Here’s something else interesting about kabuki actors: As we pointed out in a previous article, Japanese society was segmented by class during the rise of kabuki in the Tokugawa shogunate. Trades within a class were hereditary, meaning that you did what your father did—whether it was farming, fighting fires—or acting. And if you or someone else in the broader family inherited a brilliant acting talent from an ancestral line of brilliant actors, you (or your talented relative) inherited what had become a family stage name. If there were no talented heir in a particular generation one would be sought from outside the family, and adopted or married into it. The great actor line of Ichikawa Danjūrō is a well known example. The first Ichikawa Danjūrō dates back to the late 17th Century, and that stage name has continued on into our century. (Ichikawa Danjūrō XII died in 2013) Over the course of those three centuries there were three actor adoptions and one actor marriage into that famous family.

The Multimedia Presentation

As you look at the actor prints you’ll see examples spanning the 17th and 20th Centuries. A number display riveting facial expressions or makeup—sometimes both. For those interested in following stylistic changes over time we’ve placed the prints in approximate chronological order. The final two images however are not prints at all, but paintings in the traditional Ukiyo-e style of actor prints. The artist was Yoshitoshi Mori, who is known for his work in kabuki prints beginning mid-20th Century.

Onnagata – Noh and the Puppet Theater Noh and the Puppet Theater

Kabuki is the focus here not only for its huge following over four centuries, but also because it was responsible for the largest body of actor prints in the Japanese print genre. Print publishers had little interest in big-time pursuit of the two other major dramatic forms, Noh (or ) and Bunraku (puppet) theater, presumably because neither could match the box office draw of kabuki—or therefore the profit potential offered by kabuki prints. But kabuki is indebted to each for the plot ideas it borrowed.

Unlike kabuki, which had been entertainment for the masses for much of its existence, noh was serious, sophisticated theater of the Court, patronized almost exclusively by the upper echelons of Japanese society. It consists of music and highly stylized acting and dance. Costumes and masks are wonderful beyond the power of words to describe. (Use of masks in major roles is one difference between noh and kabuki.) Noh performances are rare today but you can watch excerpts online. Far better to watch those excerpts than rely solely on a lengthy written description of noh performance, which simply cannot substitute for experiencing it directly.

Great noh prints just aren’t easy to find, for the reason stated. But there was one print artist who is known for his brilliant noh output, and collectors can find examples on the market by checking online dealer listings periodically. That artist’s name is Tsukioka Kogyo (1869 - 1927), who was a student of, and was adopted by, the great print master Tsukioka Yoshitoshi. (This is one of many examples of Japanese artists taking the name or partial name of their teachers.) Kogyo’s prints use strikingly beautiful colors and do a wonderful job with the masks, as you’ll see in the “Actor” presentation. Costume elegance makes it clear that noh was particularly intended for the court. Three Kogyo prints launch the Actor presentation, and are followed entirely by kabuki prints. This order is appropriate because noh in its classic form preceded kabuki by several centuries.

As for Puppet theater (bunraku), we couldn’t find high quality prints to include in the presentation. But don’t ignore bunraku on that account. There is nothing of similar scale which is comparable in Western culture. What makes bunraku unique is the intense dramatic effect it achieves using large “puppet” figures controlled not by manipulating strings—but by one or two people holding fast to the doll-like figure and moving it about the stage. There also are levers which control mouth, eyes and other body features for dramatic effect. Here again you can find performance excerpts online. Bunraku is just amazing, and like noh is far better experienced directly than by reading written accounts.

Kabuki in the American Political Lexicon

On the kabuki stage actors, costumes, makeup and music take precedence over plot and denouement, each of which is known to the audience even before entering the theater. What’s important is totality of the sensory experience, with examples again available online. Back in the 1950s in the period following the Pacific War it was those predetermined endings that caught the attention of American political observers, who may have been stationed in Japan. So, for example, legislation introduced in the U.S. Congress to please a particular constituency—but which had no chance of passage—sometimes was labeled a “kabuki dance”—going through the motions to no practical effect. It’s very likely that many Americans first heard the word “kabuki” when reading such commentary in the newspaper or hearing it on television.

Hope you enjoy the “Actor” presentation!

© 2016 Tom Silver


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