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  • Onnagata: A Labyrinth of Gendering in Kabuki Theater by Maki Isaka, and: Edo Kabuki in Transition: From the Worlds of the Samurai to the Vengeful Female Ghost by Satoko Shimazaki
  • Carolyn Morley
Onnagata: A Labyrinth of Gendering in Kabuki Theater by Maki Isaka. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2016. Pp. xvi + 256. $50.00 cloth, $30.00 paper.
Edo Kabuki in Transition: From the Worlds of the Samurai to the Vengeful Female Ghost by Satoko Shimazaki. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016. Pp. xiii + 372. $60.00 cloth, $59.99 e-book.

The sprawling, raucous, boundary-bursting kabuki theater of the Edo period underwent a critical change as it adapted to a new era during the nineteenth century, transforming in the process from a popular to a classical theater. This shift is not so surprising considering the changes wrought in every sector of society with the collapse of the Tokugawa shogunate and the advent of the Meiji period, a period that ushered in modernization, Westernization, and a new emphasis on the natural sciences. Mainstays of Edo kabuki—such as the onnagata 女方 (actors who specialize in women’s roles), the primacy of the actor over the written text, and, during the nineteenth century at least, the extremely graphic and convoluted stories—were antithetical to the new enlightened era. Two recent studies examine the arc of kabuki from its beginnings in the early seventeenth century to the present, questioning how scholars have interpreted the dynamic role of kabuki in society, the changes in audience reception, and the innovations in acting during the Edo period. Maki Isaka addresses the evolution of the onnagata through the lens of gender identity, while [End Page 230] Satoko Shimazaki explores the ever-changing performance text of kabuki.

Modernization introduced a valorization of the written text and, with it, an anxiety over origins: the original written source of a play (Shimazaki’s focus), and the original site of a performance role (Isaka’s focus). Imitation—the transmission of both performance text and performing roles from one actor to the next in a lineage—was now considered second best, a copy. For the (male) onnagata, this new valorization of texts meant questioning the very basis of his performance: he could never “be a woman,” after all. For the performance texts themselves, this valorization meant an assertion that only one written version of a play, the so-called original, had merit and was part of the canon. This kind of essentialism was the antithesis of kabuki performance, which had long resisted any constraints.

In Onnagata: A Labyrinth of Gendering in Kabuki, Isaka offers “a case study of how gender has been constructed and naturalized, defined and redefined, theorized and practiced” (p. 15). She uses the onnagata as her example and follows the evolution of the art of the onnagata via the historical records of some of kabuki’s most renowned onnagata performers, from Yoshizawa Ayame 芳沢あやめ (a man, 1673–1729) through Ichikawa Kumehachi 市川久女八 (a woman, 1846?–1913). Isaka’s contribution is primarily not in the discovery of new material but in a new analysis of material already available in other sources. Her approach enables her to successfully situate onnagata within current discourse on gender identity. As a theater specialist, I found the framing of the argument in the vocabulary of gender studies to be at times irksome, but I am nevertheless grateful for the new insights offered into the art of role-play in traditional theater forms.

Isaka turns her attention first to the evolution of the art of performing a woman on stage from its inception in early kabuki, which was performed primarily by women (okuni kabuki 阿国歌舞伎) and prostitutes (yūjo kabuki 遊女歌舞伎), to female impersonation in the young-boy troupes (wakashū kabuki 若衆歌舞伎) to the emergence of the onnagata in male-only performances (yarō kabuki 野郎歌舞伎) following the government edict banning women’s and young boys’ kabuki troupes. The reader may be familiar with the works of Katherine Mezur, Hattori Yukio 服部幸雄, and Gunji Masakatsu 郡司正勝, which trace the onnagata acting method to wakashū 若衆 (young boy) female [End Page 231] impersonations.1 Isaka does not dispute the connection: many of the boy actors drifted over to the male-only troupes to become...


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pp. 230-242
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