Excerpt: Onnagata: A Labyrinth of Gendering in Kabuki Theater

For a close-up look at transgender expression in another time and place, this Pride Month we wanted to share a selection from Maki Isaka’s book Onnagata: A Labyrinth of Gendering in Kabuki Theater. Onnagata, usually male actors who perform the roles of women, have been an important aspect of kabuki since its beginnings in 17th-century Japan. Isaka examines how the onnagata‘s theatrical gender “impersonation” has shaped the concept and mechanisms of femininity and gender construction in Japan. The implications of this study go well beyond the realm of theater and East Asia, informing theory about gender more broadly.

—Lorri Hagman, Executive Editor

Quatercentenary kabuki theater in Japan is a “queer” theater. That is not so much to say that kabuki is an all-male theater, in which male actors play women’s roles, as to note how radically this art form has altered the connotations of the word “kabuki.” Just as with the word “queer,” the implication of which has changed fundamentally over the years, the meanings of the word “kabuki”—nominalized from a verb, kabuku (to lean; to act and/or dress in a peculiar and queer manner)—have transformed dramatically. Not only did it shift from a generic word (that which is eccentric, deviant, queer, and the like) to a proper noun (this theater), but its connotations also altered tremendously from something negative to something positive. That is, kabuki theater was born as a kabuki thing—merely another stray entertainment among many, which was considered akin to prostitution—and ended up proudly styling itself the kabuki theater. With a checkered past marked by bans, shutdowns, exile, and even capital punishment for the parties concerned, kabuki—once a theater of rebellion for the common people—is now one of four classical genres of Japanese theater that the nation proudly presents to the world, along with noh (a medieval Buddhist theater a few centuries older than kabuki), kyōgen (a theater of mime and speech that accompanies noh), and bunraku (a puppet theater), all of which are all-male theater.

Kabuki is well known for its exaggerated acting, flamboyant costumes and makeup, and unrealistic stories filled with ghosts, women who are actu ally birds or flowers, men who can transform themselves into toads or rats, and so on. With the aid of wires, actors playing magical foxes, supernatural samurai, or ghostly ladies-in-waiting literally fly through the air in playhouses. Kabuki is a fantasy theater. That said, unlike other genres of classical Japanese theater, kabuki appears amorphous, resisting concise definition. Some kabuki productions might remind spectators of jingju, a traditional form of Chinese theater also referred to as Peking Opera, with their highly stylized choreography and masklike faces heavily painted with bold lines in primary colors. Others come very close to straight theater, based on realistic movement and elocution. Some kabuki plays are nearly identical to its contemporaneous bunraku. Still others pay homage to noh, in terms of both dramaturgy and performance style based on dance and chanting.

One famous aspect of kabuki is its use of onnagata actors who specialize in women’s roles and are admired for their beauty and artistry. Onnagata are considered indispensable in the world of kabuki, which is clearly “male”-centric, or, more precisely, masculinity-centric. For example, at the end of a play, a protagonist performed by a male-role troupe leader sometimes uses the “three-steps” (sandan), a mobile staircase that emphasizes pictorial stage effects and amplifies the presence of the troupe’s top actor. The threesteps is reserved for male-role players (tachiyaku); when a leading onnagata (tate-oyama) does a similar performance, he uses the “two-steps” (nidan) instead, visually materializing the gender hierarchy. Likewise, since stage left (kamite) is charged with superiority compared to stage right (shimote), an onnagata seldom stands left of a male-role partner when they are dancing, except when performing a couple such as a princess and her retainer. For that matter, terminology itself is quite telling. While the initial meaning of the term “onnagata” meant “those in charge of women’s [roles],” enunciating the marked gender of the characters to be performed, tachiyaku (lit., “standing role”) is a privilege unmarked by gender. Closely related to the noh tachikata (lit., “those standing”), tachiyaku are simply “actors.” Within this masculinity-centric picture is the onnagata, the flower of kabuki.1

With the increasing availability of DVDs and YouTube, images of internationally renowned onnagata such as Bandō Tamasaburō V (b. 1950) have been abundantly available worldwide, which further stimulates discourse on onnagata. It is no exaggeration to say that the topic of onnagata is among the most often discussed in both academic and popular discourse.

Taking a bird’s-eye view of discussions of the onnagata’s performance of femininity, one cannot help but recall the quote from Karl Marx that serves as the epigraph for Edward W. Said’s Orientalism: “They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented.”2 This sentiment is echoed in a remark on onnagata’s performance of femininity in The Kabuki Theatre, a book published in the 1950s: “Yoshizawa Ayame (1673–1729), a famed player of women’s roles, 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.’”3 Among materials written in English, this book is one of the basics of kabuki studies in its early days, which dates to immediately after World War II and the subsequent American occupation of Japan. The quotation is well circulated in works on onnagata and beyond. The idea that onnagata’s performance of femininity is unavailable to women is nearly ubiquitous in works on onnagata today. Moreover, this remark is also a rare example of the use of Japanese performance outside the confines of Asian studies. The notion that onnagata’s femininity construction is unavailable to women has thus been attractive and influential.

The predominance of this idea is intriguing. It is understandable, for it corresponds to a current basic understanding in gender theory that gender and biological sex are not in a binding relationship. Topics relating to onnagata also speak to the contemporary phenomenon of “beautiful-boy” (bishōnen) culture. However, it is ironic that the possibility of onnagata artistry is regarded as residing in male actors alone, considering that the art of onnagata is, in both theory and practice, made possible by the very presupposition of “femininity [being] separable from women’s anatomical sex.”4 If onnagata’s gender performance were possible only in male actors, a rigid binding relationship would connect sex and gender, albeit in an opposite way. Onnagata artistry is never limited in such a manner, and the fixation—despite its attractiveness—has constrained the potential for the analysis of onnagata’s gender performance to contribute to our thinking on gender.

This potential is not merely possible but urgently needed. First, the purported remark of Yoshizawa Ayame in The Kabuki Theatre cannot be located in “The Words of Ayame” (Ayamegusa), an eighteenth-century onnagata treatise. In fact, the text in its entirety strongly suggests the opposite. The onnagata’s performance of femininity was not the exclusive property of male actors; rather, onnagata constructed it by approximating women through observation and training and by circulating it with women. This notion was not idiosyncratic to this specific text but rather was repre-sentative at the time it was written. Furthermore, although onnagata artistry has changed radically over its four-century history, even in recent years (that is, after the idea of considering onnagata art available only to male actors became dominant in modern times), quite a few onnagata—including major onnagata such as Tamasaburō—have left words signifying otherwise. For master practitioners, it is not so much the biological sex of a body as talent, training, and dedication to the art that matter for the performance of gender. The alleged statement, which does not exist in “The Words of Ayame,” has thus hindered effective analysis of onnagata’s gender performance in not only premodern but also modern times. In particular, what has been grossly underrated is the impact from females on onnagata’s performance of femininity. The impact includes both compatibility between women in general and male onnagata, which was materialized in history as onnagata passing as women, and female onnagata’s contributions to the art and traditions of onnagata.


1 Considering this “flower” status—beautiful yet inferior—it is no wonder that women characters on the kabuki stage are frequently, if not exclusively, engaged in “what women appear to do most often in realistic theater,” that is, “getting raped, going crazy, and, of course, dying” (Hart, “Introduction,” 5). Lynda Hart’s remark, while from a different context, is nevertheless relevant to kabuki. And when those miserable women destined to be raped, driven mad, and murdered are actually killed in kabuki, the action unfolds inch by inch. Murder scenes in kabuki are usually choreographed in an extremely slow tempo, with countless insertions of mie-pose by both the murderer and the victim, be they men or women.

Mie is a pose, accompanied by sharp sound effects from tsuke (hardwood clappers [ki] beat on a wooden board), in which the actor rhythmically and gradually fixes his gaze, facial expression, and posture and sustains this tableau for a while. Typical pieces of background music used in murder scenes are uncannily leisurely, peaceful, and sometimes even jovial, with titles such as “jizō-sutra” (jizōkyō), “dew and silver grass” (tsuyu-wa-obana), “evening-to-wait” (matsuyoi), “your-sleeve” (omae-no-sode), and “kasai-music” (kasai-aikata). Together, the music and the movements of the pose prolong the victim’s dying moment.

It has frequently been pointed out that that kabuki highly aestheticizes violence (see, e.g., “Beautiful Cruelty,” in Leiter, Frozen Moments; and “The Beauty of Torture,” in Mezur, Beautiful Boys). Of course, the aestheticization of violence is not specific to kabuki; for the aestheticization of violence in the context of media studies and American culture, see Bruder, Aestheticizing Violence.

2 Said, Orientalism, quoting Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.

3 Ernst, Kabuki Theatre, 195. No source provided.

4 Barlow, “Femininity,” 388.

Maki Isaka is associate professor of Asian languages and literatures and affiliate faculty in both gender, women, and sexuality studies and the MA/PhD program in theatre arts and dance at the University of Minnesota. She is the author of Secrecy in Japanese Arts: “Secret Transmission” as a Mode of Knowledge.