Musashi Mix Inq

Palliativity 131: Onnagata, the Woman’s Role

Posted on July 14, 2011

The nature of kabuki itself is generally misunderstood by foreign viewers. Kabuki is not “high art”. These night-life, 3 hour extravaganzas had more in common with Power Rangers than the stoic Noh dramas of the ruling class. Special effects, audience call-backs, epic battles, raunchy humor and explicit sex-acts were the language of kabuki. Pass the popcorn and hang on to your seat.

Kabuki theaters emerged in the Tokugawa era when the Shogun instituted the law that all provincial lords must make routine trips back to Edo where their families were held captive. The hope was that lords would have less ability to revolt when their loved ones were ransomed and much of their time was lost commuting with their entourage. This nation-wide increased need for mobility built up the roads and many reputable businesses. Others flourished from the wealthy travelers’ need to be entertained: gambling, drink, prostitution and theater.

Early kabuki shows had various types of casting: onna-kabuki (all female), wakashū-kabuki (adolescent males) and yarō-kabuki (all male). In 1629, all women were banned from acting because many onna-kabuki “theaters” had devolved to hosting live sex-shows for “directors” to advertise their “actresses” who were then used as prostitutes. That being said, wakashū adolescent boys were allowed to continue to act although the practice of forced prostitution continued as well.

The term oyama (女方) refers to male actors who play female characters. Although the practice of gender liquidity had been a kabuki trope adopted since it’s inception, the significance changed when it became the only way to see female characters on the stage. In this way, not only the theater, but the nation experienced a massive cultural change in that women could no longer represent themselves on stage and therefore in the popular culture.

To a liberal Western audience, one might make claims that the Japanese have had a surprisingly progressive perception of gender for quite a while; any romance on a kabuki stage is between two men, separated by a thin layer of make-up and silk. To this, the average Japanese would probably blush and tell you that it’s “just a play…”

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