The humiliated beauty of kabuki

For Japan, the Edo epoch (1600–1868), under shogunate rule, was a time of isolation from all external influences, but also a time of prosperity and peace, solidified by the established social order (in a highly hierarchical society, everyone played a specific role – samurais constituted the most privileged class of the bakufu).
The actors of kabuki belonged to the lowest of classes (this profession was considered morally doubtful). When counting the representatives of this profession, a different classifier was even used – they were not counted as people, but as small animals ... Even so, at the same time (in the 19th century), the situation of actors in Poland was equally dire – actresses, in particular, were often perceived as fallen women, who needed the protection of a sponsor.
It was then, in the Edo era, that separate worlds began to form: entertainment districts that belonged to oiran and the venues of kabuki theatre, which had become the most popular form of entertainment for the flourishing urban middle class.
The name kabuki itself meant “willing” – which was also read as “strange”, “bizarre”, and “abnormal” – being in opposition to the codified movements and gestures of the classical theatre nō. All this had its origin in the dance Okuni (one of the oiran), which was performed publicly in front of the temple Izumo. It quickly found imitators and was followed by groups of young boys, competing for their favours and provoking street brawls. All these activities, associated with kabuki, led to a ban on the performances of women and young men; from now on, these roles, including those of women, were taken over by mature men (when they played the roles of women, they were described as onnagata).
The actors of kabuki offered entry into another world: with gesture and mime they told the story of the conflict between feelings and duty (a popular theme of the double suicide of lovers). They also praised the former power and strength of the samurai, who had lost their significance in peacetime. On the one hand, they occupied a low social position, but, on the other hand – until they had become constrained by the restrictions imposed by bakufu – they could live extravagantly, wearing rich costumes and earning high wages.
On the one hand, they were humiliated, on the other they were admired. Perhaps, because of this duality, almost defiantly, they became a frequent topic of woodcuts.
The masters of woodcut art recorded images of kabuki artists and the beauty of oiran (who, although absent from general consciousness, would eclipse the beauty of the later geishas with their rituals) as willingly as they did the Edo mountain fn. Traces of these fascinations can also be seen on our portal and in the collection of the National Museum, presented at the Manggha Museum of Japanese Art and Technology in Kraków.

Elaborated by Anna Berestecka, (Editorial team of Małopolska’s Virtual Museums),
Licencja Creative Commons

 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Poland License.