A Labyrinth of Gendering in Kabuki Theater

Maki Isaka

  • Published: 2016. Paperback August 2017
  • Subject Listing: Asian Studies / Japan; Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies; Performing Arts
  • Bibliographic information: 272 pp., 6 x 9 in.
  • Territorial rights: World Rights
  • Contents

Kabuki is well known for its exaggerated acting, flamboyant costumes and makeup, and unnatural storylines. The onnagata, usually male actors who perform the roles of women, have been an important aspect of kabuki since its beginnings in the 17th century. In a "labyrinth" of gendering, the practice of men playing women's roles has affected the manifestations of femininity in Japanese society. In this case study of how gender has been defined and redefined through the centuries, Maki Isaka examines how the onnagata's theatrical gender "impersonation" has shaped the concept and mechanisms of femininity and gender construction in Japan. The implications of the study go well beyond disciplinary and geographic cloisters.
Maki Isaka is associate professor in the Department of Asian Languages and Literatures and affiliate faculty in the Department of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Minnesota. She is the author of Secrecy in Japanese Arts: "Secret Transmission" as a Mode of Knowledge.

"Isaka's study draws on extensive archival research and rigorous engagement with theory, analyzing the intersections of gender, culture, and performance on the kabuki stage. A welcome addition to Japanese studies, this book will inspire students and scholars alike to contemplate kabuki's onnagata in new and insightful ways."
-Jan Bardsley, author of Women and Democracy in Cold War Japan

"Onnagata is a meticulously researched and documented, original and unprecedented, intellectually rigorous and bold study of the history of the kabuki onnagata, or as it signifies today, the biologically male player of female roles in kabuki."
-Nina Cornyetz, author of The Ethics of Aesthetics in Japanese Cinema and Literature: Polygraphic Desire

Preface and Acknowledgments
Note on Textual Conventions

Part One Fundamentals: Invitation to Labyrinths of Gendering
Introduction: A Labyrinth of Onnagata
1. Geneses of a Maze: Androgyne Fatale

Part Two Femininity Inside Out: Onnagata Who Pass
2. Denial of Transience: Forfeiting the Androgynous Charm
3. Prescription for Femininity: Onnagata Who Pass
4. Canonization: Creating Onnagata Traditions
5. Femininity in Circulation: Texts in Kabuki, Kabuki in Texts

Part Three Marginalized Centers: Bodies and Personnel
6. Naturally Disciplined: Moving Real on Procrustean Beds
7. Female Onnagata in the Porous Labyrinth: The Enunciated Femininity and the Enunciating Masculinity

Part Four Origins of Onnagata: Modern Reformation
8. Toward Contemporary Onnagata: Art in Their Blood

Epilogue: The Journey Continues


"A well-researched and thorough historical study of the artificial and artistic construction of femininity by onnagata that provides a great deal of information as well as many thought-provoking insights."
-Akiko Kusunoki, Early Modern Women

"It is an important addition to the study of women performers in kabuki and supports the idea that onnagata is an action or performance"
-Colleen Lanki, Asian Theater Journal

"Isaka makes a number of important interventions in understanding how femininity is constructed and presented on the Japanese stage as well as in society as a whole. . . . The book's exploration of gender performance goes far beyond the worlds of dramatic literature and theatrical performance."
-Megan Ammirati, Theatre Survey