Onnagata – A Woman’s Manner

Kunisada, Iwai Kumesaburo III as Benten Kozo

Literally “woman’s manner” (onna kata), the use of male actors for female roles in kabuki theatre is one of the most confusing obstacles in viewing Japanese prints. In some prints the obvious theatricality; the exaggerated stage make-up and costume; the mie – the cross-eyed expression at the peak of a performance; betray the fact that we are looking at a representation of a performance; an impression of an impression if you like. In other more problematic prints, it is harder to determine whether we are looking at an historical scene or two lovers, or two men inhabiting unsettling roles.

Windmill Theatre Revudeville

Of course these confusions, these roles are all about sex, about desire and about how society and government regulate enjoyment and pleasure in the face of what it perceives as declining moral standards. The theatre, in all cultures, has been associated historically with loose morals, fornication and dissent. Governments have always tried to limit the extent of what it sees as dangerous subversion and theatres and producers have throughout time used increasingly creative ways to outwit the authorities. Since its inception in the early seventeenth century, kabuki theatre has been subject to extraordinary and to our eyes, bizarrely specific regulations. Whilst it seems arcane to us now, in the twenty first century, it is worth remembering that England for example was subject to similarly peculiar theatrical battles until only a few years ago. I’m thinking here of the office of the Lord Chamberlain who was obliged to allow the performance of nude revues at the Windmill Theatre in London so long as the actresses remained completely still throughout each of the many tableaux vivants. Another way the letter of the law was evaded, allowing the girl to move, thus satisfying the demands of the audience, was by moving the props rather than the girls. Ruses such as a technically motionless nude girl holding on to a spinning rope were used. Since the rope was moving rather than the girl, authorities allowed it, even though the girl’s body was displayed in motion.

Hirosada onnagata portrait with silk headcloth

So it was throughout the history of kabuki. Commencing in 1603, kabuki was a combination of plots derived from noh theatre and the Japanese tradition of comic farce, performed mainly by prostitutes. The performances became wildly popular and led to more and more lewd subject matter (hiring a prostitute, for example, or the teahouse brothel) performed sometimes by all male and sometimes all female casts. As early as 1608, the military style government – the bakufu – attempted to restrict performances and, recognising that they were little more than a feint for organised prostitution, imposed a ban on female performers in 1629. By 1652, kabuki was an all male theatre with young boys taking the female roles… unfortunately, as is so often the case when heavy handed laws attempt to restrict popular pleasures, this led to a different and some would argue more immoral form of prostitution which one occasionally sees in shunga books of the period; so much so that there were gazettes issued rating the young male performers for their sexual appeal and availability. In the 1650’s, what had rapidly become a gay theatre was further restricted when mindful of the corruption of young boys, the bakufu decreed that only actors past their adolescence could perform and they were obliged to shave off the beautiful forelocks that boys wore before adulthood. This led to the tradition (and law) that onnagata actors should shave the fronts of their heads not only for performances but also when in public, replacing their missing hair with silk cloths, usually blue or purple and visible in many kabuki woodblock prints, (a sure giveaway when identifying the subject matter).

Kunichika, The Ghost of Koyo-hoshi

This very public and populist theatre was rampantly creative and it is possible to draw many parallels between kabuki and the early modern theatre of London during the Elizabethan period and later. Both used male actors to perform female roles and both theatres stressed the collaborative nature of the productions with notable actors and producers writing, changing and making demands on the roles that they were performing in order to show off their own particular theatrical skills. The interminable controversy over who wrote Shakespeare’s plays is a good example of this and chimes well with the complaints of Japan’s most important playwright, Chikamatsu Monzaemon’s that popular actors ignored the written texts and altered plots in order to present themselves in the best light to their fans and audiences, (forcing him to retreat to the more reliable medium of the puppet theatre).

Toyokuni I, Nakamura Utaemon IV as the Nursemaid Komori

In Early Modern English theatre the gender confusion was acknowledged and used to satirical ends. Playwrights also frequently made reference to such confusions in the plots and characters of the production; in many of Shakespeare’s plays, for example Twelfth Night and As You Like It, this tension was developed to create a critique of gender and sexuality dependent upon the ironic awareness of the gender split between character and actor, cross-dressing, and confused identities. In Japanese kabuki no such knowingness exists… there is no conspiracy between author, actor and audience, and the intention of the onnagata actor was exactly to replicate the woman’s manner.

This woman’s manner was achieved by means of certain theatrical tricks to suggest a female kabuki role on stage: pull back and lower the shoulders, keep the knees together, cup the fingers into the palms of the hands and wear straw sandals shorter than the foot. All of these simple actions make the male body appear smaller in the eyes of the audience. Sophisticated and highly stylised gestures were rehearsed and handed down, which to our eyes now seem ridiculous and forced; however even in today’s kabuki theater it is held that a competent onnagata actor can portray the essence of a woman far better than a female could in the same role. Curiously, onnagata became the eventual arbiters of female taste and fashion, leading to an exaggerated form of dress and manners in the female population at large. This strange relationship of the genders reached its peak in the middle of the nineteenth century, perhaps when the edo culture was at its most decadent and Japanese society at its most vulnerable. Sexual anxiety among the male population is perhaps mirrored in the great onnagata roles, called keisei (roughly castle topplers). These roles called for the actor to portray sexually adventurous and immoral prostitutes who destroyed families, ruined reputations and and brought down dynasties.

Kunisada, Yugiri and Izaemon

The other demanding role for the onnagata actor was the doomed lover. Many of the most popular plays of the nineteenth century were about often true stories of lovers from different classes – usually young men of good families falling in love with prostitutes (such as Yugiri and Izaemon, left) and ending with double suicides. These plays were deemed particularly unsuitable by the authorities and many were banned on account of a plague of copycat deaths.

How did artists identify difference in their portrayals of gender roles? If we compare the two portraits by Kunichika below, one of Onoe Kikugoro (male, on the left) in an onnagata role and one of Agemaki (female, to the right) we can see that artists were obliged to strike a balance between the intended verisimilitude of the performance and the obligation to represent the actor, his character and how he actually appeared. In the Kikugoro portrait we can see the signifiers of the onnagata role: the visible purple cloth that conceals the shaved forelock, the distinctive, manly facial features, absence of eyelashes and the sharp hairline indicating that a wig is being worn. In the female portrait of Agemaki, the features are more womanly and the gesture is more feminine. The hair line is meticulously graded to show real hair, the lips are more womanly and the features are slighter.

Kunichika, portrait of Agemaki
Kunichika, Onoe Kikugoro IV

The kabuki tradition retains an almost complete ban on female actors (as did the early days of Japanese cinema) despite the obvious and historic relaxation of laws or customs forbidding women on stage. The convention remains part of the Japanese tradition and barely differs from the time when these great images of female impersonators were produced for audiences whose need for certainty in sexual relations were not (ironically) as demanding as audiences today.

Kunichika, Sugoroku Board with famous Kabuki lovers

About toshidama

Toshidama Gallery sells original nineteenth century Japanese woodblock prints. We source our prints from around the world and only stock original, authenticated works of museum quality.
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