Onnagata – Gender in Kabuki and Japanese Prints

Kunichika, Scene from the Play ‘Ashiya Doman Ouchi Kagami’, 1881    

We have written extensively on our gallery blogs about the onnagata – male kabuki actors who take female roles. There is something unique in the representations of gender that have dominated kabuki for hundreds of years.

The history is easy enough to summarise: kabuki (so legend has it) was developed as a commoners’ theatre as distinct from noh theatre that was the preserve of the samurai class. Where noh was restrained, archaic, slow and deliberate in character the new form of kabuki was closer to western pantomime or melodrama with brash plots and exaggerated acting.

Kunichika, Okubi-e of Ichikawa Danjuro IX as Omiwa, 1883

Kabuki theatre developed in the first years of the seventeenth century as a female-only drama (onna kabuki), often associated with prostitution. As a consequence, both its wildness and instant popularity led to legislation and legal constraints. Kabuki quickly established itself in the Yoshiwara district of Edo (Tokyo) – the red-light area – and attracted huge crowds; the stories it told were often of ordinary people, their sorrows and suicides, their love triangles and feuds. By the middle of the century, in an attempt to limit its popularity, women were banned from performing, on moral grounds.  The effect (morally at least) was the opposite to that intended since boys now began to play the female roles, (wakashu kabuki) and they too were drawn into the Yoshiwara’s world of prostitution.

Eventually, the government, recognising the medium’s popularity, tolerated a male-only theatre with frequent legislation designed to curb its moral and social excesses. This uneasy truce stuttered along for a century or more, with frequent legislation, until as late as 1845, curbing not only performances and performers but also the artists and the publishers whose work was inextricably tied to the theatre. As an art form it was perhaps closest to contemporary television soap operas… young lovers involved in tragic suicides on stage were so frequently imitated off stage that even some plot lines were banned by law!

Toyokuni III, Iwai Kumesaburo III as Ayame, 1852

Which, as a very brief introduction, brings us to the role of onnagata. Onnagata or oyama actors specialised in female roles as a necessity following the ban on female performers. The febrile atmosphere of the theatre and the precincts of the Yoshiwara, the pressure cooker of the dense and vast population of Edo, privation, melodrama and sex all contributed to making the world of kabuki intense, inward looking, culturally exclusive… A world of clans, families, codes of behaviour, hierarchies, styles of acting, arcane rules and fanatical followers quickly developed, and out of this was created the particular character of the onnagata.

Yoshizawa Ayame (1673–1729), a famed onnagata, wrote in his book Ayame-gusa:

If an actress were to appear on the stage she could not express ideal feminine beauty, for she would rely only on the exploitation of her physical characteristics, and therefore not express the synthetic ideal. The ideal woman can be expressed only by an actor.

This controversial statement has come to define the approach of kabuki actors and the appreciation of onnagata performances ever since. It has been repeated and rephrased by critics, actors and academics and is still discussed today when talking about performance. It chimes loudly with contemporary discourses that attempt to place transgender politics within any feminist dialectic and like that conversation it is bound to create anger and anxiety on all sides. It is a very modern idea, proposing that someone born with male characteristics could inhabit a female role as well or better even than someone born with female characteristics. An argument along similar lines is after all what sparked such controversy between the trans community and feminists such as Germaine Greer in 2018. How also does the kabuki performer in female roles differ from other theatrical manifestations of cross dressing… the pantomime dame for example, or indeed and perhaps more closely comparable, the male actors taking female roles in Elizabethan theatre?

Kunichika, 36 Good and Evil Beauties: The Virtuous Woman Otake (not onnagata) 1876

In the Elizabethan theatre or in fact, London at that time, gender was in any case more fluid. The same could be said of Edo in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. There is little evidence to suggest that individuals identified in the binary ways that western cultures have done since the pre-eminence of modern capitalism. Hence strict definitions of homosexual and heterosexual identification were less widespread. Some but not all kabuki actors appear to have been homosexual, many onnagata actors were as adept at male roles as female, many had children and created acting dynasties but just as many created dynasties that mimicked family structures by adoption and apprenticeship – even down to the passing on of family names and titles. Hence the greatest name in nineteenth century kabuki, Ichikawa Danjuro IX, was the fifth son of Ichikawa Danjuro VII, but adopted by Kawarsaki Gonnosuke VI and took the name  Kawarasaki Gonnosuke VII before readopting his own family name later in his career.

A male actor in a female role, The Spanish Tragedy – Elizabethan Drama

What did Yoshizawa Ayame mean in his controversial statement? The idea in kabuki that an accurate performance of femininity is unavailable to women is pretty widespread and as noted previously seems very current given contemporary tropes around the questionable links between gender and sexual biology. The problem in kabuki from the point of view of gender politics is the inflexibility (encouraged by legislation) that only men can portray the ideals of femininity. If the argument were framed more flexibly (ie that both men and women have the ability to do just that) the proposition might appear more attractive. For the public, the outrageous antics of onnagata on and offstage were the source of admiration and fanaticism. The feminisation of the male actor into that of a tragic heroine was not controversial, nor subject to approbation… the opposite in fact. There exists a strange relationship between the actual females of the theatre-loving world… the geisha, the shop-girls, the working women, and their imaginary counterparts on the stage. Styles, fashions, make up, voices, mannerisms created by onnagata as a means to express the emotions and motivations of a fictional character on stage became current amongst women outside the theatre. Hence the unlikely codependency of the male performer and the female consumer… men showing women the ‘correct’ way of being female off the stage and in real life. These fashion statements were quickly adopted and amplified by prostitutes as a means to advertise their fashionability… and this in turn fed back into real life.

Kunisada, Nakamura Tomijuro II as the Spirit of a Willow Tree, 1854

Much of what we think of as traditional Japanese female appearance and mannerisms today is the exaggerated invention of the male theatrical performer, obliged to take the scant information available on fashion from, say, the Heian period (794 – 1185) and build a convincing theatrical role around it. Edo was a time and place of invention, double meaning and illusion. Looking today at the woodblock prints of the nineteenth century, it is in fact often impossible without prior knowledge, to say with certainty whether characters are male heroes, boys, female impersonators or actual women. This ambiguity (see for example any number of images of the male military hero Yoshitsune) is reflected even in the period love of metaphor and double meaning, seen in the popular use of mitate… the art of one thing meaning or suggesting another. Fluidity in art and life was so widespread as to be nearly unintelligible to westerners. It is well worth looking to the still challenging art of shunga (traditional Japanese pornography) or representations of the Yoshiwara to appreciate how widespread sexual ambiguity and moral permissiveness was. It is against this context and not that of late monopoly capitalism, Victorian prudishness or American Puritanism… (still less contemporary media capitalism) that we should marvel at the freedom of individual expression available in Japan’s Edo period. This is not to say that Edo was much other than a cruel and harsh urban scene but it was also a mysterious place of desire, a place where people, whilst in chains, were free to invent in ways that we maybe still do not appreciate.

Kunichika, Bando Hikasuburo (right) as Iwafuji from Kagamiyama, 1872
Toyokuni III, Mitsuuji (Genji) on the Beach at Ise Watching Awabi Divers, 1860

Toshidama Gallery is showing new prints from nineteenth century Edo throughout April and May 2019. Many prints portray men and women in just such ambiguous ways.  For example, the show juxtaposes a scene of female abalone divers, naked from the waist up, with heavily made up women of the court played by male actors. The divers are working class, harshly exploited and underpaid… the court ladies are dressed in expensive and embroidered gowns and wigs… this juxtaposition of the female as a naked worker and the impersonator as an object of fashion and image underlines just some of the confusing gender roles which operated in nineteenth century Edo.

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.
This entry was posted in Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, kabuki theatre, Kunichika, Kunisada, Toyokuni III, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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