Women of Japanese Theater

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Women in Japanese Theater

The history of women in Japanese theater is the history of the social changes that swept the country in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Actresses at this time progressed from a point where they were not allowed to perform at all to the point where they were celebrated artists. Although it would be intriguing to tackle womens history in the theater across the entire period, the source book, Acting Like a Woman in Modern Japan, is so packed with information on so many aspects of women in the theater that the topic is overbroad. This paper therefore will discuss only selected topics: the role of men in the theater in the absence of women; the advent of actresses into the profession, and what it was like for the first women who broke into acting. With these basic topics as support, well move to the main point: the way in which revealing the physical body on stage, notably in Salome, came to finally define women in the theater in terms of their physicality, and whether this is a breakthrough or further restriction. The paper also defines the vocabulary common to the theater as necessary.

The idea that actresses are little better than common prostitutes is common in all cultures that have a theatrical tradition, and in Japan at least, it has some basis in fact. Some prostitutes used their stage appearances to advertise themselves in sensational dances that resulted in riots and disorder. Because of this, women were completely banned from appearing on the stage in Japan from 1629 to 1891. Initially they were replaced by the wakashu, akin to the boy-actors in English theater of the Elizabethan period (Kano, p. 5). Unfortunately, it soon became evident that the wakashu incited as man riots as the women did, and they were banned as well. That left only adult males available to act, so they took on all roles, including female roles as well. â Applying thick white powder and rouge to their faces, donning elaborate costumes and heavy wigs, forcing their shoulders back and walking with bent knees, these actors, called onnagata, or oyama, cultivated a style of acting that represented idealized femininity by concealing one set of somatic [bodily] signs and inscribing another. So highly valued was their portrayal of femininity that women from the pleasure quarters began to imitate them. (Kano, p. 5).

This is a strange and rather disturbing idea: that men should be thought to embody the height of femininity when in fact they were a grotesque parody of it. Femininity thus became a sort of code that circulated from the theater to the prostitutes and back again; the onnagata were available as sexual partners for the male patrons in much the same way the women had been before they were banned from the stage. However, the practice of onnagata eventually led to the development of a stylized art and made idealized femininity something that was represented by men. (Kano, p. 5). This seems extremely strange, except that Kano believes that it may be possible that at this time (around the 1830s) homosexuality rather than heterosexuality was the normative form in Japanese culture. The idea of heterosexuality as the correct and normal may not necessarily have been considered until the Japanese were exposed to Western culture.

By the late 1800s, when Western influence was spreading through the country, attitudes began to change towards the onnagata and towards the idea of having women in the theater. Much of Kanos book is devoted to delineating the careers of two of the most influential actresses in Japanese theater, Kawakami Sadayakko and Matsui Sumako. Although were not going to do more than touch on them, they are important for what they represent: actresses trained purely in the art of acting. During a time when the public regarded womens performance as synonymous with sexual entertainment, these women trained their bodies and minds in order to enter a profession that...
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