japonisme: vanity, thy name is onnagata

01 March 2008

vanity, thy name is onnagata

in order to better grasp the disfavor that met sharaku's work, we need some context. we've already noted that his primary subjects were kabuki actors. "These actors (all male), like the No actors, came from long generations of theater families and learned the conventions of the theater from imitation of their predecessors. In kabuki, the actor is supreme and the scripts for the plays are primarily guidelines for the action which the actors may interpret as they see fit. Emphasis is placed on elaborate costuming and make-up and music and dance (including highly stylized posturing and gestures)." 1

Yamashita Kinsaku II was an outstanding onnagata (female roles) actor, who won fame for himself in both Edo and Kamigata during the second half of the eighteenth century. 2 His specialties included pretty boy roles (iroko) and young female roles (waka onnagata). He first appeared on stage at the Nakamura Kumetaro Theater in Kyoto in 1747, and was adopted by Yamashita Kinsaku I and became Yamashita Kinsaku II in 1749. In 1752 he moved to Edo and performed at the Nakamura Theater. In 1755 he went back to Osaka. In 1769 he went to Edo again and became famous. He ranked as the best actor of female roles in 1779. He excelled in all female roles and was also a skilled haikai (comic linked-verse) poet. 3

but further, we need to understand about the social environment the kabuki actors experienced.

according to nancy g. hume, in her book japanese aesthetics and culture, "the life of the actor -- his background, training, and professional and social relationships -- was fascinating to the wider audience of theatergoers. the main focus of kabuki was less the play than the actor who attracted attention not only because of his dramatic talent but because of his lineage, his physical assets, and his private life. boyish beauty, unusual acting ability, elaborate reputations for a luxurious lifestyle, and romantic entanglements titillated a public vulnerable to the glamour of the theater world.

the most popular actors lived in luxury, commanding high salaries and receiving lavish gifts from admirers and patrons. some of the more prosperous, particularly in kyoto and osaka, became theater owners. others owned or had a part interest in teahouses. some kept a considerable number of beautiful youths in their homes whom they trained as actors.

customers of the teahouses could arrange for these boys to entertain and drink with them and serve as sexual partners. daimyo and men of wealth summoned them to their mansions to entertain and to spend the night. called iroko (sex youths) or butaiko (stage youths), they ranged in age from thirteen to about seventeen.

estimates claim that 80 or 90 percent of the onnagata during the first half of the toku- gawa period started as iroko. yamashita kinsaku is only one of the many actors who emerged from this background." 4

now if you were a man in the public eye, known for your womanly grace and overall attractiveness, which of these portraits, by seven different artists and displayed in chronological order, would really just bug you the most? and wouldn't your fans just rail?!

and what has changed? a real fan will not want to see unflattering portraits of their favorite movie stars, but judging by the checkstand tabloids, there is still a desire by enough of the rest of us to see into the stars' "true natures," unflattering or not.

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Blogger Roxana Ghita said...

and much of this is also true for today's kabuki, the public adoration and the obsessive penchant for knowing everything about a kabuki star and especially an onnagata... what is fascinating about onnagata is that the japanese thought a man can embody and express the feminine essence in a way no real woman could - of course "the feminine essence" as constructed by them. so onnagata is really about man projecting his own fantasies about the Other and thereby forcing the woman to fit into this pattern. women's interest for the onnagata (I know Japanese women who go to kabuki only to see the onnagata) is another interesting question, maybe it has to do with the inconceivability of the situation, the magic, the charm exuded by onnagata is so strong, the fictional identity so perfect, that the woman cannot but wonder: how is it possible for a man to be better at being a woman than myself? it's very complicated, but so fascinating, thank you again for the beautiful post :-)

01 March, 2008 16:06  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

that is so interesting! thank *you*! yes, one thing i read was how women would ask them for advice on allure.

i think my only experience with this is the film of m butterfly. now i'm assiuming lone is not really an onnagata so maybe even that doesn't count, because i wasn't captivated.

>>how is it possible for a man to be better at being a woman than myself?

because he's not. it's as you say, it is embodiment of the fantasy -- and it's pretty much still the only fantasy we've got, but also "he" doesn't have to worry about being human: no spit-up on that kimono shoulder.

i love these questions. how was it for you to witness the onnagata?

01 March, 2008 16:49  
Blogger Roxana Ghita said...

For me Kabuki was overall an overwhelming experience. It expresses so much beauty and emotion with such subtlety and intensity - I can hardly find a match for it in our kind of theater. I didn't get the chance to see a noh play, on the contrary. Regarding onnagata, yes, it was shocking and unbelievable, I watched Tamasaburo Bando dancing and it was like nothing I've seen before, I could certainly understand the magic. and feeling the tension in the audience, the vibrant silence when he froze to make a pose, even if I could not understand very much on the symbolical level, the explosion afterwards, that was really unique. I've never seen him playing a Western female role, though, and I'm very curious, this would be so fascinating...

03 March, 2008 14:34  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

there are several videos on youtube of Tamasaburo Bando. i just went to see and yes, there were. i feel ignorant, i must say. or like the kid who called the emperor naked.

but this person did not in any way seem like a woman to me. the movements--well, for example, think of a ballarina. that is what appears to me to be how the ideal female body moves.

it also occurrs to me that i could easily be culturally blind, particularly in comparing japanese movement with (essentially) russian ones. maybe if i had grown up seeing dance as geisha dance, for example, then he might appear to me completely differently.

what did you see? there are a number on youtube.

03 March, 2008 18:48  
Blogger Roxana Ghita said...

oh no I'm afraid we are all kids when it comes to most of japan. if I hadn't had the headset providing english explanations during the plays I couldn't have understood anything. just enjoying the dance, the colours, but nothing of the deep philosophy and aesthetics hidden in each gesture or pose or stillness. I liked Dojoji Musume most, but I couldn't find it on youtube, only this small excerpt: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KxTl5X1YAUM

(I forget how to paste the link)

Your question is most interesting, I don't really know. I think this may be partly because yes, there is this huge cultural gap - take the way a geisha is supposed to walk, with the toes pointing inwards etc, it doesn't look pretty for me, as if one is about to crumble every instant. but partly it is also because the onnagata wants to depict the timeless essence, so they have to construct it somehow by emphasizing different aspects on the symbolical level and intensifying their dramatic charge. so it is not only about an ideal body expressing something through beautiful, harmonical movements, but about embodying certain spiritual, archetypal qualities (like innocence, joyfullness for ex) in a way that transcends our human, every day reality. But I may be all wrong here, I really don't know.

05 March, 2008 02:50  

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hi, and thanks so much for stopping by. i spend all too much time thinking my own thoughts about this stuff, so please tell me yours. i thrive on the exchange!

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