Artist Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) shows a Kabuki actor dressed as a woman from the series “Index of Favorite Actors Showing Off”. The face reflected in the battledore -shaped mirror is identical. The feet are too large and masculine for a woman in this beautiful Japanese print.
Why did Kabuki theater have only male actors? Because women were punished by legislation that was intended to curb the prostitution that followed the first performances (later, young boys were also banned from performing for the same reason). The history of Kabuki began in 1603 when a woman, Izumo no Okuni, who was an apprentice at the Temple of Izumo began performing with a troupe of female dancers a daring new style of dance drama, on a makeshift stage in the dry bed of the Kamo River in Kyoto according to the Encyclopedia Brittanica.
The older Noh style of dance was formal, gracefully stylized and with a tradition influenced by Buddist doctrine. Noh was stately, for aristocratic samurai audiences while Kabuki was wild, shocking and flamboyantly dramatic; appealing to the average citizen. Kyogen is a third form of ancient comedic theater for the masses with an influence on Kabuki (See youtube.com, NHK Kabuki Kool 2016, Discover Kabuki Based on Noh and Kyogen Documentary). Kabuki was the first entertainment conceived for the masses.
I propose that it is Okuni’s revenge that male actors have had to study femininity closely for hundreds of years. Walking miles in the shoes of female warriors, poets, ghosts and all types of heroines on stage has surely led to a unique understanding and respect for women by the actors and by the artist.
Information from kuniyoshiproject.com
Series: Index of Favorite Actors Showing Off, Yakusha kidori hi-iki-biiki,
Subject: Female standing in front of calligraphy
Actor: Ichikawa Hakuen
Publisher: Maru-ya Jimpachi, c. 1840
Size: Oban, about 14″ x 10″