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  • Reflections on the Onnagata
  • James R. Brandon

We should not forget the historical reason the onnagata became part of kabuki theatre: in 1629 government officials banned professional actresses from kabuki stages. The onnagata was a political expedient and did not need justification on artistic grounds until the ban on actresses was repealed in the late nineteenth century. Then theatre scholars, performers, and culture managers were required to come up with reasons why the onnagata should continue. The result was the creation of unsubstantiated myths: only a male actor can suggest the essence of a woman, only a man possesses the physical strength to wear a heavy wig and multiple kimono, and so on. These are not really artistic explanations; they are rationalizations for why the social institution of male-playing-female should continue undisturbed in the modern era when it was no longer needed or required. Are we expected to believe that the reason men took over kabuki's female roles was because men are physically (and mentally?) stronger than women? I don't think so.

Today's onnagata actors live immensely privileged lives as idolized kabuki stars. Quite naturally they and their supporters are adamant about keeping female actors out of their profession. It is well known that Chinese opera has allowed female actors to play female roles in recent years and the art form has not collapsed. Why not kabuki? Briefly, because too much is invested in commercial kabuki to disturb the status quo.

I have never been persuaded by assertions that onnagata were "more feminine than women." But it occurs to me that this could be so, [End Page 122] in the sense that the onnagata actor deploys only female gender acting techniques, whereas, as we know, real Japanese women may, and often do, express strident, blatant, obnoxious behavior that is not, within Japanese culture, considered proper "feminine" behavior.

I am not much concerned with theories of the onnagata, I suppose because of the essentializing nature of such discussions. But I am interested in the characteristics of onnagata acting. The young male kabuki actor is taught by his seniors and his teachers specific physical actions to suggest/indicate/show/present a female kabuki role on stage: pull back and lower the shoulders, keep the knees together, cup the fingers into the palms, and wear straw sandals (zōri) shorter than the foot. All of these simple (gender?) actions make the male body appear smaller in the eyes of the audience. And this is necessary if one accepts that, on average, the male-sexed body is larger, taller, and stronger than the female-sexed body. Therefore, if the male body is presenting a female kabuki role, it helps for the male actor to assume actions and postures that suggest the smaller female body. Consequently, the onnagata actor does in fact attempt to suggest a "real" female-sexed body through these physical patterns (kata), despite all theories to the contrary.

Can the female-sexed actor (actress) play a female kabuki role? Of course she can. She can learn to perform what the onnagata performs. To the extent that we think the female and male bodies are different, there will be some subtle (and perhaps not so subtle) differences in their art. And that is all right. It is grossly reductionist to suggest that the mere change in the performer's sex turns "kabuki" into "not kabuki." A score of performance attributes—of movement, posture, and voice, of music, staging, and costuming, of timing and flow of energy, of characterization and dramatic plot—characterize a kabuki performance and distinguish it from, say , or bunraku, or shingeki. The onnagata is just one of many elements that characterize kabuki.

Further, there exists no single, unified art form called kabuki. There are dozens of varieties or versions. The kabuki acted by the Ichikawa family and that acted by the Onoe family are so different that actors of one family will not act in plays belonging to the other family. Broad differences exist between kabuki as performed in Kyoto-Osaka (Kansai kabuki) and kabuki as perfected in Edo. There is Grand Kabuki (ō kabuki), seen in major theatres today under Shōchiku Corporation sponsorship...