- Onnagata: A Labyrinth of Gendering In Kabuki Theatre by Mari Isaka
Isaka offers one common definition of the term onnagata as “those in charge of women’s roles” in the kabuki theatre (p. 6). Many studies on onnagata modify this definition, replacing the nongendered pronoun “those” with the qualified noun “male actors,” implying that a male body is the only site for the onnagata’s performance of “womanliness.” In her book, Isaka argues against this gendered specificity through analysis of texts by and about famous onnagata and by presenting examples of women actors who were successful onnagata. In so doing, Isaka shows a fluidity of gender performance in the art of the onnagata, leading us into the labyrinth of “womanliness” that flows between the fictional world of the theatre and the real life of society in both male and female bodies.
The book begins with a short introduction to kabuki, which allows the reader entrance into Isaka’s ideas on gendering and onnagata. Focusing on the original meaning of the word kabuku (to lean; to act and/or dress in a particular manner), kabuki is immediately defined as a “queer” theatre with a checkered history. Isaka does not spend a great deal of time describing kabuki performance but emphasizes that this book is an analysis of the literature of and about onnagata, particularly the geidan, the writings of kabuki actors [End Page 247] describing their artistic praxis. The book then “examines and inquires into how the gender performance of onnagata has been understood, conceptualized and theorized” (p. 15). Through an investigation of this literature, Isaka looks at the trajectory of what is appropriate, valued, or admired in onnagata gender performance through different time periods. From the futanarihira (androgynous beauties), who emerged from the early wakashu kabuki (kabuki performed by young men), to onnagata, who were especially admired when they passed as “real” women offstage as well as on, the book brings to light some new ideas on the art of onnagata. Through exploration of numerous texts Isaka shows that the performance of womanliness is complex, porous, and the result of intense cultivation (shugyō) and imitation.
Chapter 6 changes somewhat, focusing more generally on the body in both kabuki and Japanese dance. It is fascinating reading for anyone interested in the transference of gei (acquired artistic technique) and how kabuki’s intense training “implants kabuki grammar in the actors body” (p. 90). At times, however, the chapter’s discussions on nō and nanba gait (where the left arm and leg move together rather in opposition) do not connect clearly to the art or theory of onnagata. Also in this chapter, the technique of ningyōburi (puppet gesture technique) is theorized and used as a way to problematize the binary of “natural” and “unnatural” movements. The idea that through intense physical training something deemed “unnatural” becomes “natural” is certainly connected to the art of the onnagata, but here it is discussed purely in the context of the Inoue school of Japanese dance. The points raised are strong, but some analysis of actual performance alongside the literature would have reinforced the argument.
Another chapter of note deals with the Meiji-era development of the female actor in both kabuki and other forms of theatre. This is an important examination of women’s emerging place as both tachiyaku (male role actors) and onnagata. It looks at the impact of Ichikawa Kumehachi I and other female performers, discussing how their ability to embody authentic kabuki performances made them serious competition in an otherwise male world. What follows is an argument as to why contemporary onnagata theory evolved to assume that onnagata could only be performed by a male-sexed body. The catchphrase “more womanly than women” was designed to make modern onnagata “transcendent doers of femininity in isolation” (p. 151), and female-sexed beings were no longer included in the new paradigm.
There are a few notable omissions in this book. Though it begins with a discussion of the origins of the word “kabuki,” there is no mention of kabuki’s...