Japanese prints can be confusing territory for those seeking certainty. Artists of the ukiyo-e revelled in “look and compare” pictures or mitate-e as it is called. Borrowing from the traditions of poetry, mitate-e pictures play ironically with the knowingness of the audience, substituting contemporary actors for historical characters or a well known courtesan for a long dead poet. Confusingly for the collector of Japanese prints, artists were often commissioned to portray actors in imaginary roles or roles they never played, usually by a wealthy fan or patron.
Perhaps the most surprising feature of actor prints is that despite the apparent beauty and seductiveness of the actress, all of the female roles in kabuki were played by men, or onnagata as they are known. This tradition of male-only roles stems from the seventeenth century and still applies today, in modern kabuki performance.
Kabuki arose in the early seventeenth century as a popular and frankly lewd performance put on by prostitutes as a more accessible and populist entertainment than the classical no theatre of the upper classes. Early performances were exclusively female and had humorous titles such as Hiring a Prostitute or Playing in a Teahouse Brothel. Laws were quickly introduced banning female performances and the roles of women were taken by attractive boys who were also available for hire as prostitutes. Eventually, kabuki became more what we see today… high drama, formalised, ritual entertainment; knowing, camp and very exaggerated.
So popular was kabuki that ironically onnagata became the style icons of female fashion among the population outside the theatre. Hence fashions, manners and modes of behaviour were innovated by female impersonators on stage only to find popular currency amongst the women they were intending to portray.
Kabuki theatre is so formal that the specifics of make up and conventions of dress have remained unaltered for over two hundred years. Much of what we now see in an actor’s performance, such as the shaved forelock and purple head cloth, are merely lingering reminders of government proscription against what was always perceived as immoral and wanton display.
Here is a link to a very fine video of a contemporary kabuki actor applying the complex traditional make up of the onnagata.