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Onnagata: The Stars of Japanese Kabuki Theater

Maki Isaka Highlights A Centuries-Old Cultural Phenomenon
December 15, 2015

The origins of Kabuki Theater date back to 17th Century Kyoto, when Japan was under the rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate. At its most basic definition from its etymology, Kabuki is a queer fantasy theater. As an art form, Kabuki appears amorphous, but usually accompanied by over-the-top practical stage effects, extravagant costumes, and incredibly disciplined actors who dedicate their entire lives to the art. In some cases, entire productions designed the work around the talents of one actor to best demonstrate their talents, to which plot and substance might look secondary at times. Above all else, what has made Kabuki truly famous is that all character roles, regardless of gender, are said to have been portrayed by men. These male actors are known as Onnagata. Isaka’s new book, however, reveals that female actors have, in fact, existed in Kabuki, and the latest female Onnagata passed away as recently as 2012.

Asian Languages and Literatures Associate Professor Maki Isaka is also affiliated with the Department of Gender, Women, and Sexuality studies, as well as the Department of Theatre Arts and Dance. Her combinations of academic expertise allowed her to produce a truly innovative piece of research, a new book titled Onnagata: A Labyrinth of Gendering in Kabuki Theater.

The book examines the historical and cultural impact of Onnagata on Japan. Kabuki is said to have reached its golden age in the late 17th Century, and has survived many social changes, retaining great popularity to date. Throughout the history of Kabuki, its actors, male-role actors and Onnagata alike, have gone through training to display masculinity and femininity, each of which is a lifetime vocation.

In the early days of Kabuki, before female actors were banned in 1629, they were often associated with prostitution. As a result, female actors were banned from Kabuki productions, and the Onnagata all-male ensembles rose to take their place. After young boy actors were banned in 1652 on similar grounds, Onnagata came to wear a purple headscarf, known as boshi. The boshi was designed to cover the shaved part of the adult masculine hairstyle. Born out of necessity, the boshi later became the sign of Onnagata beauty in its own right, and women even copied it as a fashion. Even after the end of the Meiji period and later after World War II, Kabuki has remained incredibly popular.

Isaka’s Onnagata: A Labyrinth of Gendering in Kabuki Theater has been heralded by fellow scholars as an “intellectually rigorous and bold study of the history of the Kabuki Onnagata” and as “a welcome addition to Japanese studies, this book will inspire students and scholars alike to contemplate Kabuki’s Onnagata in new and insightful ways.” Onnagata: A Labyrinth of Gendering in Kabuki Theater is being published by the University of Washington Press and will be available for sale in January 2016.

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.