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Considering OnnagataV

Onnagata and Castrato


It is often said that Kabuki (歌舞伎) is similar to Opera and Castrato in opera is like Onnagata (女形) in Kabuki as its good example. Castrato is a male singer who was castrated before his change of voice to maintain his high-pitched tone (soprano). Originally it started from church music, gradually spread to Opera area and peaked in about1650~1750. But it went out of fashion rapidly after the 19th century began, was forbidden at the mid-19th century by the Pope because of the humanity reasons and came to an end.

 On the other hand, Onnagata in kabuki was forced to act a female role by a male actor by the 1629 ban of Edo Shogunate that forbid Harlot Kabuki which meant a prohibition of actress in Kabuki. The Onnnagata dramatics was not established immediately. It had been formed through several trials and errors or hard fights.

Picture: Yoshizawa Ayame

The originator of Onnnagata in Kabuki isAyame Yoshizawa the first (初代芳澤あやめ,16731729). It had taken a little less than 70 years from the ban of Edo Shogunate to the time when Onnagata’s performance became valuable to some extent by Ayame. This shows their sufferings by limiting their express. The skill of pigeon toed walking was innovated by Tomijuro Nakamura the first  (初代中村富十郎, 17191786) and Onnnagata has developed and been placed in Kabuki well. However more time was needed and it was after Horeki Meiwa era (宝暦〜明和期, around 175070).

Picture: Nakamura Tomijuro danses Dojo-ji

On the other hand, Castrato peaked in about 1650 1750 and it was the era of Baroque Opera. However even Baroque Opera needed the high cost for Castratos. Therefore, at Opera performance in local area, female singers were often appointed instead of Castratos because of budgetary limitation. But when it was the era of Grand Opera in the 19th century, Castratos passed away. Its reason was simple Castrato was not real. Opera was a musical play and there was the limit for realism in Opera. However it was thought that bisexual singer’s singing was not real. The Romantic school music in the 19th century focused on the descriptiveness (describing natural things or human feelings in nature) and the literariness.

Picture: Farinelli, the most famous Castorato in Italy, 1705〜1782

Then we can understand that there is a great difference between
 Kabuki and Opera. Grand opera left Castrato in the 19th century and boldly stepped into Realism area. Since then it gained the possibility of dynamic expression. In the 19th century Castrato disappeared and female singers replaced it. This was only natural since Opera pursued reality in visual sense and literature.

On the other hand, The Onnagata dramatics was established after Horeki〜Meiwa era and Kabuki developed while strengthening stylistic elements although it never abandoned the direction to Realism. Onnagata and Castrato are not the evidence for the similarity of Kabuki and Opera but rather the contrary.

 Onnagata is indispensable to Kabuki. And it is impossible to replace Onnagata to actress. It would not be necessary to discuss those understandings. What kind of thing does “Onnagata is impossible to replace it to actress” mean?  It means that Kabuki has been changed and adjusted to the style that the actors act women’ roles. Onnagata  has become a part of the essence of Kabuki and it cannot be replaced.

Kabuki aimed for real performance by actress participation. However the prohibition of actress forced Kabuki to change its direction. In other words, the realism ideal of early Kabuki failed because of Edo Shogunate prohibition of Kabuki actress in 1629 that meant Harlot Kabuki.

Kabuki has not developed without changing its form for 400 years since Kabuki Dance
(歌舞伎踊り) performed by a woman called Izumo no Okuni (出雲阿国). In fact, Kabuki has repeated breaks and changes in quality everywhere. Among them, the prohibition of Kabuki actress brought dramatic and essential changes so as to choke the life out of Kabuki.There was the landslide vast dislocation betweenKabuki before actress prohibition and subsequent Kabuki that was different from the former.

Kabuki had to rebuild its style by and large to fit Kabuki to Onnagata. This made Onnagata put in Kabuki without uncomfortable feelings. It took more time than expected. There are some opinions for the time when Onnagata art was established. Onnagata art repeated trial and error and had not readily completed. Therefore Kabuki had difficulty to survive several times. Onnagata art showed considerable progress in Genroku era (元禄期 by Ayame the first. However the time of its true completion as the art was the time when the skill of pigeon toed walking was innovated byTomijuro Nakamura the furst (初代中村富十郎) and the time when Gidayu-kyogen
義太夫狂言; the stories of which came from Ningyo Joruri) was settled in Kabuki programs. In other words, it has taken 100 years or around 120 years since the prohibition of Kabuki actress.  Yaro-Kabuki (野郎歌舞伎; men's Kabuki) has completed for such a long time. Onnnagata was such a big problem.

Picture:Mizuki Tatsunosuke (初代水木辰之助)、a famous Onnagata in the same era of Ayame Yoshizawa

At first the man whose frame was delicate and voice was high might be forcibly chosen from the company. Although Noh play (能楽) preceded Kabuki,its condition was not the same ofKabuki. Kabuki is much more realistic than Noh. Being different from Noh, at Kabuki plays, actors don’t use masks and are protected by luxurious clothes. Their action and elocution are speedier and more natural. So they could not hide their unnaturalness by wearing women’ dresses, making women’ hair style and painting their faces white. Yaro-Kabuki couldn't but begin with such things. Onnagata arts has been settled since the technique to pretend women like the pigeon toed walking byTomijjuro Nakamura was completed and then Onnagatas’ voice condition was put into Kabuki plays through Gidayu-kyogen without sense of incongruity.

If the dynamism was kept in Edo era like Azuchi-momoyama era (安土桃山時代) or the Edo Shogunate admitted the freedom of speech and expression, Kabuki might have progressed as realistic drama with actresses quickly and healthily. However, unfortunately Edo Shogunate prohibited actresses and oppressed the new entertainment in sequence through prohibiting making new programs including those days’ matters and so on. This greatly obstructed the development of realistic dramas and cut off the flow from Okuni Kabuki (阿国かぶき). Later Kabuki has never abandoned its will for realism, but it had to twist and crook the vector for realism.


Ningyo Joruri (人形浄瑠璃)Japanese puppet theatre in which recited narrative and dialog is accompanied by a shamisen (forerunner of bunraku 文楽)

Written by Yamamoto Kichinosuke
Translated by Rakunosuke
All rights reserved.

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