Ukiyo-e artists have used kabuki, (traditional Japanese theatre) as subject matter for their woodblock prints more or less since its inception in the seventeenth century. David Bowie started experimenting with kabuki for his stage shows in 1973. By the time of his Aladdin Sane tour he was wearing actual kabuki costumes and using kabuki stage props and masks. The long extract below deals with Bowie’s debt to kabuki and is taken from the excellent “Ziggy Stardust Companion”.
“In the West, Japan was traditionally viewed as an ‘alien’ culture, at least in the way that it was represented in the tabloids. It was often crudely caricatured as an incomprehensible, rule-bound society in which ritual humiliation was the order of the day for its citizens. Bowie’s Ziggy dignified Japanese culture and showed him open to ideas outside Anglo-American rock. Bowie helped internationalise pop, starting a long-running fascination with the East. The result of this kabuki appropriation, was a violent clash between the logic of the rock gig (connection and camaraderie) and that of kabuki theatre (stately though garish formality).
“The use of kabuki styles in rock performance was an innovation. Some of the costumes for the Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane shows were actually first used in kabuki theatre, others were designed for Bowie by Kansai Yamamoto, again based on traditional designs. The overall visual effect of these shows was that of a blurring of ‘found’ symbols from science-fiction space-age high heels, glitter suits and the like – with kabuki-style garments whose effect was to signify the codes of another culture, one alien to Western society. In the context of the times, Bowie’s appropriation of kabuki theatre was, for a Western pop audience, in equal measure unsettling and fascinating. And kabuki was innovative and cool: for instance the Mawaributai – a revolving stage now a staple in some glitzy rock shows – was invented in Japan almost 300 years ago.
“In kabuki theatre, all parts, both men and women, are played by men. Its androgynous nature was elevated by Bowie to a position of fundamental importance. It was the kabuki aesthetic of visual excess, its garish though formal juxtaposition of colours, which attracted Bowie while he was drawing the Ziggy character. The heavily made-up red or gold lips, black eye-liner and blusher, set against the whitened pallor of the rest of the face, echoed the make-up used in kabuki theatre. The constant changing of costume, so evident in both the Ziggy and Aladdin Sane stage shows, also had its origins in kabuki. A change of kimono meant a change of personality.”
The Toshidama Gallery has a new show devoted to kabuki performances and actor portraits, many of which foreshadow our contemporary delight in pop excess. The show runs until the new year.