Kabuki Demonstration: The Art of the Onnagata, by Kazutaro Nakamura

Ng Yi-Sheng

September 1, 2016

This talk was on a Tuesday night, but loads of people came! Turns out Singapore has a whole ton of die-hard kabuki fans. Who knew?

OKS: Let me talk about how this project came to be and how it came to Singapore. Sandaime Richard was a project that began two years ago, and along the way I met Kazu.

It’s been a process of meeting and talking and workshops and rehearsals. And it’s a very unusual project, because he is performing kabuki on stage, but not really kabuki. It’s kabuki meets contemporary performance. What we see on stage next week is not what you see here.

It’s really unusual for Kazutaro Nakamuro to be addressing us. First, because it’s rare even in Japan for kabuki practitioners to give talks: it’s a rather closed business and there’s a perceived lack of interest in the public. Second, kabuki actors are super-busy performing all the time, so they don’t often get to travel abroad without their troupes. And third, he’s young—he’s a big star in Japan, but it would usually be his elders who have the seniority to speak about this.

Kazu: I started acting when I was one year old, and I was given the name of Kazutaro Nakamura when I was four. That’s how my kabuki life started.

When I went to college I seriously started my career as a kabuki actor. I am now 26 years old and I now play kabuki every month.

He speaks really good English, but because of all the terminology involved, he’s working with an interpreter for this talk. Her name’s Miwa. Most of what I attribute to Kazu is actually her translations, delivered in third person.

We start off with the basics: how kabuki was in fact founded by a woman in the 1600s, Izumo no Okuni, and how her all-female performances were so popular that the government banned them as a threat to public morality.

Izumo no Okuni

Young men, aka wakashi, then took over the theatre troupes—and they became as big K-pop idols today. But they too got banned for the same reason. (Remember, this was an era when it was common to have same-sex, different-age romances.)

So kabuki became the domain of adult male performers that we know today.

Kazu: No matter how government prohibited playing kabuki, people loved kabuki so much and the government couldn’t do anything.

The focus of his talk is the craft of the onnagata, the female roles in kabuki. Kazu specialises in this, but not exclusively: he’s doing female roles 80% of the time, male 20%.

Kazu: The wonderful thing about kabuki is that even over 80 year-old people can play teenage girls. And there are 16 year-olds and 26 year-olds. My grandfather is 86 years old now. He can also play.

And this is the unique feature of kabuki which is never seen in western theatre. And I think I’m going to spend the whole of my life in this career.

An onnagata is not simply a copy of a woman: it involves a very careful mimicry and aestheticisation of women’s behaviour, enhanced by costumes, wigs and makeup.

Kazu: It’s a little boring, so let’s just do some movement.


Kazu: The knees must be touched together and your hands, make them look cute. Twist the body a little bit. Twist the neck a a little it to look cuter, and using the sleeves… it looks very cute.

I know this is an ancient ritualistic form of performance, but I’ll be damned if there isn’t a degree of RuPaul’s Drag Races in the mix.

These movements were actually very hard for Kazu to do without a grand, voluminous costume: he’s wearing just a summer kimono and hakama.

Kazu: If you wear a gorgeous kimono, and if you do the wrong movement, it doesn’t show. But wearing this kind of clothes, it’s obvious. I can’t hide the posture as a man in these clothes. I have to pay attention to the angle. So when I dance in a costume like this, without makeup, I have to paya  lot of attention. It’s not impossible, but it’s challenging.

He relaxed a little by showing off his previous performances. First, Princess Sagi from Sagimusune, a 1762 drama about a heron fairy.


This was pretty stunning: he had dozens of lightning quick costume changes in this scene (it’s an art called hikinuki; eat your heart out, Evgeny Mironov!) and furthermore, a silent scene meant he had to express all his emotions through movement.

Then he showed us the climactic murder scene of Onnagoroshi Abura no Jigoku, aka Woman Killer in Oil Hell, a drama based on a real life crime in Edo Japan.


Kazu: In kabuki, people take a long time to die. Even in a murder scene, they have to look beautiful.

Kazu might think this scene looks artificial (they used glue to stand in for all the spilt oil), but I was actually taken aback by how brutal and naturalistic it seemed: how there was flailing and floundering around with katanas and screaming blue murder amidst the stylized poses.

Wozzeckish, maybe. Operatic, but born out of the age of realism. Nothing like the aniconic formalism of noh. Keng Sen elaborated on this later:

OKS: In kabuki there is a suggestion still of the real. As a director coming from contemporary performance, it’s not a very hard technique which you have to force into collaboration. It’s very fluid and very flexible, and is similar to kyogen and Takarazuka. I remember Seika saying, “How to be a man? Just feel it, and you’re a man.” So it’s very interesting, it’s not just about a hardcore technique. It’s part of an internal feeling.

During the Q&A, a lot more interesting facts popped up: for instance, how kabuki involves just five days of rehearsals before a month of performances, so that the performances themselves take the form of practice.

Also, Keng Sen talked about the punctiliousness of costuming: the idea of demonstrating kabuki in everyday dress was oddly taboo.

OKS: Of course in rehearsals he just wears rehearsal clothes. But that’s a closed door performance. Every moment in the public, even a lecture like this, you need to be presentable.

As a contemporary artist working with a traditional artist, you become aware there are specific rules regarding every meeting with the audience. You can’t just wear shorts and T-shirt. It’s something more precise than that. It’s a very interesting way in which every encounter is framed.

So what Kazu was doing, even in a neutral kimono, was projecting a codified woman’s presence. And on stage he has the skill to perform subtle movements of the eyes and the mouth, never allowing his teeth to show, which makes all the difference.

Audience members were diverse, and so were the questions. Older folks used Chinese opera as their reference point—and it turns out that kabuki contains no singing, but only song-like speaking, which Kazu demonstrated, modulating his voice depending on the age of the female character he was presenting.  (It also turned out that he didn’t really know what he was doing consciously—falsetto or no falsetto? After all, this is a medium he grew up with, rather than something he studied from the outside.)

One LaSalle student asked about gender performativity, which didn’t quite translate. Keng Sen handled that one.

OKS: It’s some kind of fantasy, a code of being a woman. Richard Shatner also writes about this, it’s a rehearsal, it’s a redoing of something. It’s not the real thing but it’s like the real thing. 

A couple of years ago he was researching a project looking at The Peony Pavilion, and he was looking at the story in kun opera and kabuki. He met up with an old woman and she learned from the gentleman actresses because when Mao Zedong came into power she forbade cross-dressing on stage. And she was the first generation of women who learned from the male actors. So in a way this actress learnt from a man how to be a woman.

And if you see her now, she’s in her 70s, she’s performing as a man performing as a woman. It’s completely different from an actress being trained today: all these gestures, you see the layer so herself embodying a man embodying a woman. It’s very fascinating to seeing the layers of gender.

And this is where you really see the power of the onnagata. It’s not about the power of naturalism and realism, it’s about the power of performing gender.

Also, in response to a question about the symbolism of specific costumes, Keng Sen told a story of collaborating with a Nihon Buyo dancer and going a fantastic warehouse full of stage kimonos:

OKS: It was several stories tall, and on every floor there are costumers bringing out kimono after kimono. Like maybe is your story set in the Meiji era, is it in winter, do you want it to be more flamboyant, is she a lively woman, is it something that is melancholic. So in the range of the character there are quite a few possibilities you can choose.

But it’s just amazing because it’s a huge warehouse with many stories. And it’s not just you: there were at least 100 people, actors, directors, moving around searching for kimonos.

It’s stories like that that really remind you how primitive Singapore’s arts scene really is, in spite of all our aspirations.

I caught up with Kazu informally the next day, during a cast party for Paradise Interrupted. And he told me all sorts of new things: how kabuki is innovating to attract younger audiences, just like western opera. There are new scripts being written all the time, some set in the modern day. He’s even played Belle in a kabuki Beauty and the Beast!

But when I asked about the issue of whether women would ever be allowed to perform in kabuki… well, that just didn’t seem to be an area that needed changing. It’s hard enough for a man who isn’t a kabuki family to be get into the craft, let alone a woman. And the women in the families are content enough to do other kinds of performance, like Japanese dance.

The one time a woman has been allowed on the kabuki stage in recent history, Kazu said, was when she was a virtual woman. That’s right: to be a female kabuki practitioner, you have to be computer-generated.

Shido Nakamura & Hatsune Miku in kabuki performance

Which makes some sense, really. After all, how better to be codified female than if you’re actually coded?

Art isn’t about justice, my dears. It’s about artifice. The more manmade, the better.

  • 2016