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From Gay to Gei: The Onnagata and the Creation ofKabukfs Female Characters Samuel L. Leiter From 1629 to 1877, women were officially forbidden to act in Japan's kabuki theater, which—under the leadership of a former shrine priestess named Okuni—they had founded in 1603. From 1629 on, male actors, the onnagata, played women's roles. The reasons for the banning of actresses have been frequently recounted elsewhere and need not be reexamined here in detail. At the time, Japanese urban culture was largely under the influence of Confucian ethics and Buddhist religious practice, both being antifemale systems. Whereas, despite endemic misogyny , ancient and medieval Japan had many women of accomplishment , such women were exceedingly rare during the Tokugawa period (also called the Edo period, 1603-1868). Women of the time may have been more socially and commercially active than is commonly supposed,1 but it is clear that Tokugawa women were, by and large, second-class citizens. People were to behave in this world according to their given place in it. When the dictatorial military government, the bakufu, determined that kabukfs women had overstepped their bounds, it banned them from the stage. In 1652, it did the same to the youths in the homosexual boys' kabuki, which replaced the women, and who were eliminated for much the same reasons. Kabuki would have died had not increasingly believable instead of merely pretty female characters begun to appear in the mature male kabuki that emerged in the 1650s and took its first important artistic steps in the following decade. At this point, kabuki witnessed a transition from gay theater to gei theater, gei being Japanese for art, including acting art. Only actors past their adolescence could perform and they were forced by law to reduce their physical attractiveness, principally by shaving off the beautifully coifed forelocks that boys wore before celebrating their accession to adult status. 495 496Comparative Drama The English theater, by introducing actresses, opened the door to an emphasis on the commodification of women. On the other hand, since kabuki's mature males were required to radically tone down their glamour, one might have feared that the presumably desexed kabuki was not long for this world. But kabuki not only managed to turn the new restrictions to its advantage , it also was able to guarantee that sex remained a fundamental component. Moreover, it served to commodity men as sex objects, regardless of which gender they portrayed. Eros remained primary, and the actors, while continually striving to achieve lifelike portraits of the women they depicted, were always alert to maintaining the proper level of "sex appeal" [iroke]. From the mid-seventeenth to the late nineteenth century, playwrights and actors successfully created a rich panoply of female roles and types. Sue-Ellen Case has identified two basic images in Western dramatic depictions of women, the positive, which shows "women as independent, intelligent, and even heroic ," and the misogynist, "commonly identified as the Bitch, the Witch, the Vamp, and the Virgin/Goddess."2 Kabuki has its share of bitches, witches, and vamps—its virgins are positive, not negative figures—but they are in the minority and most kabuki women actually occupy the first category. Although she overlooks kabuki, Case correctly notes that women in all-male theaters undeniably offer a gender depiction denying real women representation in favor of a fictional construct favoring patriarchal values. The appropriateness of her perspective will be apparent during the following survey of kabuki's women (many of them first created for bunraku puppet plays, later adapted for kabuki)? I will also demonstrate that, despite the obvious persistence of patriarchal attitudes, kabuki was surprisingly fair to and respectful of women, quite possibly because the actors playing /inspiring their creation were men whose artistic status was dependent on the authenticity with which they captured the truthful essence of another gender for an audience in which women generally outnumbered men.4 Finally, I will describe the exploitation of cross-dressing as a dramaturgical device of this all-male theater. I Women of the Tokugawa Period. The actual women of the Tokugawa period were the victims of a mighty patriarchy, which Samuel L. Leiter497 relegated them to a position...


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pp. 495-514
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