I introduced Naomi Waxman, social media manager for My Son Wears Heels, last fall. She’s currently spending a month in Japan with her family. Today’s post is her latest contribution to the blog.
My very earliest memories as a child take place in Japan. They flicker from the past like images on a slide projector, sometimes tangled up with real photographs and stories. My mother grew up in Japan and traveled there with my father several times prior to my birth in 1989. Twenty-one years later, we’re back!
One of the most exciting features of this trip was the opportunity to see kabuki, or classical Japanese dance-drama. Unlike Western theater, kabuki highlights the actor and performance itself rather than plot. Among the most noted performers are onnagata, male performers that only play female roles for the duration of their career. Banned in 1692 and re-instituted shortly after, these roles and the actors who fill them are the subject of much fascination and discussion.
In kabuki theater, audiences applaud as the actors enter the scene from an elevated aisle called a hanamichi. From the moment they appear, onnegata conscientiously perform stereotypical “feminine” physicality – small, delicate footsteps, graceful arm and hand movements, and speak in a theatrically high-pitched voice.
While strikingly different from drag performance in the West, onnegata and drag queens both engage in “gender performance,” using movement, posture and facial expressions to portray female characters.
Later, walking through the Tokyo Station, I caught sight of something that put a huge grin on my face. It was a poster advertising the Takarazuka Revue!
I’d never heard of it, but my parents filled me in. An all-female musical theater troupe, the Revue has been producing over-the-top musicals since the early 20th century. All roles are performed by women, complete with immaculate and accurate period costumes, in shows ranging from The Count of Monte Cristo to Singin’ in the Rain. Gender identity and expression are complex, and scholar Lorie Brau delves deep into the world of Takaruzuka.
She argues that while the manner in which Takarazuka exhibits rigid gender roles in the plays themselves “reinforces the status quo and sublimates women’s desires through its dreamy narratives, there remains some possibility that certain spectators find it empowering simply to watch women play men.”
I’ve found that nothing is simple when it comes to the world of gender, and there is always more to learn.
I am extraordinarily fortunate to have an opportunity to visit Japan and explore gender performance in a culture quite different from my own. Opening my eyes and mind, I am grateful to the citizens and artists of Japan who have been generous enough to share their culture and perspective with me.
IF YOU LIKED THIS POST YOU’LL PROBABLY ALSO LIKE THESE: