The onnagata Iwai Hanshirō V as the grocer’s daughter Oshichi. Artist: Utagawa Kunisada I. c.1815.
On stage, it is a cold, dark night towards the end of the 12th month. At this late hour in the Hongō district of old Edo, the city gates are already firmly barred and there seems no way for the lovely Oshichi, 16-year-old daughter of the grocer Kyūbē, to get past. But she must do so, for the life of her beloved Kichisaburō is at stake.
Oshichi has discovered the whereabouts of a precious sword, and if she cannot reach Kichisaburō to give him this information before dawn, he will commit suicide to atone for its loss. Oshichi is desperate. Her emotions grow frantic. At last, she resolves to do the unthinkable by climbing the nearby watchtower and striking the drum that is the fire alarm. Only that will cause the gates to re-open.
Yet she knows that her punishment for this will be death. She will be dragged through the streets as a common criminal and then burned at the stake. But still she must go on. Snowflakes begin to whirl around and the ladder’s rungs are frozen, feeling like hell’s mountain of swords on her bare feet as Oshichi begins to climb…
Ichikawa Kodanji IV playing Oshichi in the style of a puppet (ningyō-buri 人形ぶり) from the play Shōchikubai yuki no akebono. Artist: Utagawa Toyokuni III. 11th month, 1856.
But wait. Is that Oshichi on stage? Is that really a 16-year-old girl? The answer, of course, is no. It is a man dressed in a young girl’s kimono, and what’s more, the man is middle-aged! Suddenly we realize that what we are watching is not reality, it is art.
At such times, those unfamiliar with Kabuki’s acting conventions may find it strange that the actors are exclusively male. Though in history women have been banned from appearing on the public stage in many different countries, including Shakespeare’s England, such prohibitions belong to the past. They come from times of great social inequality and, for most of us in the developed world today, they are totally unacceptable.
Yet still, in the 21st century, mature women do not appear in Kabuki. In fact, the law against women appearing on stage in Japan, first promulgated in 1629, was relaxed in 1888. But unlike other Japanese theater forms, Kabuki chose to ignore the new freedom. Many will ask why such an antiquated practice continues. To do so, however, is to misunderstand. It shows a lack of appreciation for what is, in its own right, a great art form.
Actors who play female roles in Kabuki are called onnagata. Although there are some who act both male and female characters with great skill (kaneru yakusha), there are many important roles that call for true specialists. As part of their training, all young Kabuki actors must learn the basic movement patterns, postures and speech typical of both male and female roles, but the pure onnagata go on to devote their entire professional lives to the portrayal of women on stage so one would expect them to be a little different. After all, they have had more time to focus on and to hone their skills. It’s hard to put one’s finger on it, but pure onnagata have a very special quality; theirs is a distinct and separate identity that exerts its own powerful attraction.
When translating the word onnagata into English, the preferred term is “female role specialist.” Sometimes, however, we also hear the phrase “female impersonator.” For Kabuki aficionados “female impersonator” seems unsuitable because it can be misleading. It is inappropriate because it has modern connotations that are too culturally specific. Furthermore, it begs the question: are onnagata “impersonating” real women at all?
When asked about his approach to the art, one of today’s most famous and talented onnagata, Bandō Tamasaburō, had this to say: “I act a woman with the eyes and feelings of a man; like a man painting the portrait of a woman…. I gather up knowledge by watching: this is how they react, this is how they place their hand on their hair. I gather up this type of material and transform it. Thus, my masculine instinct evolves, and, in such a way, patterns of womanliness take shape.” (From the 1995 film The Written Face (書かれた顔) by Daniel Schmid.)
In short, what we see on the Kabuki stage is a masculine construct, a man’s idea of a woman, albeit one that is based on keen objective observation. Nor is it only one man’s idea because over hundreds of years it has been cumulative. What we observe today is the sum total of many generations of onnagata, and what they’ve created has become increasingly remote from how real women look and behave. “Realism” is no longer the point; we have gone way beyond that.
Iwai Hanshirō IV as Masaoka and Sawamura Tōzō I as Yashio in the play Ōmiura Date no nebiki. Artist: Utagawa Toyokuni I. 2nd month, 1799.
In practical terms, what Tamasaburō said about “patterns of womanliness” is very important. The masculine idea of a woman has been analyzed and broken down into set movement and vocal patterns, and these performance techniques have become stage conventions. It is precisely these techniques that young actors have to master. Performers sometimes use the phrase karada o korosu (“kill the body”) in reference to the painful physical reshaping and discipline necessary for onnagata performance. A typical man, after all, has broader shoulders, is generally taller, with bigger hands and feet. Since the feminine ideal involves appearing small, delicate, and graceful, the actor must keep his knees bent and pressed together, with his feet turned inward. Shoulders must be pulled down and back, with the shoulder blades pressed together until they touch, and until it hurts.
In Kabuki, an onnagata’s performance is based on having a male body underneath. For the audience this is an essential prerequisite, and there is a constant ambiguous interplay between the male actor’s body and the female role he is playing. Neither is ever forgotten, resulting in a kind of hybrid gender role.
This also applies to other aspects of performance, such as the voice. For the first-time visitor to Kabuki, one of the most strikingly artificial features can be the way an onnagata speaks. Some people even find it off-putting. This is understandable, for example, when we listen to one of the most famous speeches for any onnagata role, a passage called the akutai in the play Sukeroku. Here, the high-ranking courtesan Agemaki abuses an evil, but wealthy, customer who has just insulted her true lover. The speech begins: “Well now, Ikyū, if I place you next to Sukeroku, on the one hand is a splendid man among men, while on the other is a malicious old devil. To compare you, it is like the purest snow, and the blackest ink.” The speech builds towards a magnificent crescendo until, at the end, Agemaki bursts into malicious laughter.
The strict rules of poetic meter and Kabuki elocution are already demanding enough, but, in addition, the shift required between upper and lower vocal registers makes this speech especially difficult and totally unnatural. Real women cannot speak like this. Yet it is a perfect example of how the onnagata’s gender ambiguity can be utilized for artistic effect. The stylization is appreciated as a man-made form of beauty.
Iwai Kumesaburō III as Agemaki and Ichikawa Danjūrō VII as her lover Sukeroku in the play Sukeroku yukari no Edo zakura. Artist: Utagawa Kuniyasu. 3rd month, 1828.
Every culture has its own perception of what is beautiful or ugly. But in the case of Kabuki onnagata, the regular theater-goer soon comes to learn the established ways of seeing and reading the actors’ performances in their theatrical contexts. Once these are accepted, what might normally appear unnatural, or even grotesque, outside this environment, is actually read as beautiful.
In this regard, it’s interesting to note from the many woodblock prints avidly collected by fans over the centuries that several of the onnagata portrayed had somewhat unconventional features. The portraits of Iwai Hanshirō V below and at the top of this article, for example, show a man who seems to have crossed eyes. Yet Hanshirō was extremely popular in his day, earning a record-breaking salary. Far from his eyes being considered a fault, people used to say of him, me senryō, “Eyes worth a thousand in gold.” Clearly, there is something about the onnagata’s art that allows it to transcend mere surface appearance.
A portrait of the actor Iwai Hanshirō V. Artist: Utagawa Toyokuni I. c. 1815-16.
For hundreds of years, the art of the onnagata has been at the heart of Kabuki’s unique aesthetic, and to do away with them now would be to destroy completely one of the world’s great theater forms.
Paul Griffith was formerly an associate professor at Saitama University (Education Faculty). He read for a Phd degree at Oxford University in the field of Japanese theatre history, and has been a translator and narrator for the Earphone Guide Co. Ltd. at the Kabukiza and the Tokyo National Theatre. He is also a translator and narrator for many Kabuki DVDs, and has written subtitles for Cinema Kabuki. Previously, he worked in the Japanese department of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, and continues to work as a volunteer for the British Museum’s online database of Kabuki actor prints.