Kabuki Theater: Makeup Is Performance

Kabuki Theater Makeup Is Performance

While we see and sometimes use makeup every day, it holds a deeper meaning for some areas of Japanese culture. Kabuki theater, which dates back to the 17th century, uses makeup to portray different character types and create symbolism in the performance.

Makeup holds a special significance when it comes to Kabuki. You’ll see it not only in makeup style but in what it means for the performance. 

What Is Kabuki?

Kabuki theater began in Japan’s Edo era. It joins Noh and Bunraku theater as a popular form of drama in Japan. It also features exclusively male actors, even today. Men play all gender roles, and those who specialize in playing women characters are called onnagata.

Kabuki theater involves intricate, brightly colored costumes, and that includes their makeup. Kabuki often portrays serious themes like revenge and honor, though many of the plays also incorporate love. They’re not usually funny plays at their core—save that for Bunraku—but that doesn’t mean they’re entirely without humor.

Kabuki actors train extensively in their art form. You won’t see the same dramatic stunts you expect from American plays or films—Kabuki actors work to perfect subtle portrayals in their characters. That doesn’t mean it’s boring, but you might get more out of the performance if you brush up on the play before going to the theater

How Makeup Makes the Performance

Kabuki has its own form of makeup called kesho, made up of oshiroi, or a white foundation, and kumadori, the bolder, more colorful parts of the makeup. Kabuki makeup has evolved over the years, from lead-based products that often caused lead-poisoning to safer components now.

Oshiroi isn’t your typical foundation. In the early days of Kabuki makeup, actors chose white because they thought it brought them closer to Japanese aristocrats. It also created a neutral base for kumadori.

Kumadori involves painting different colors and patterns based on the character type. For example, villains in Kabuki will usually have a black goatee to symbolize their sinister intent. And kumadori isn’t subtle—its bold strokes leave no question of which character the actor wearing it represents. 

What Do the Colors Mean?

Many Kabuki actors consider kesho ceremonial, and both the designs and colors of kumadori symbolize different roles and character types. In a typical kabuki play, you might see these colors:

  • Red: A hero’s color, stands for virtue, power, strength, and honor
  • Black: Often used for dark eyebrows and goatees that represent the villain
  • Blue: Can accompany black to show the villain or represent a character from the spirit world
  • Green: Used to show ghosts and other spirits
  • Purple: Represents nobility in the play

You can see some of the designs used in Kabuki theater in Masamitsu Ota’s work. He created a full album of kesho woodblock prints to show the different types of makeup used in Kabuki.

While Kabuki is one of Japan’s oldest forms of drama, you can still watch it today. Many historical theaters in Japan put on Kabuki shows, and you can see plenty of traditional performances put on by modern actors. 

Sarah Wood - July 20, 2020

Edwards, Theresa. “A Kabuki Makeup Tutorial that Anyone Can Do.” Udemy. https://blog.udemy.com/kabuki-makeup/. Accessed 9 July 2020.

“Kabuki Foundation, Created with Function and Passion.” Kanebo. https://www.kanebo.com/history/column/kabuki-foundation/#:~:text=Kumadori%20is%20makeup%20used%20for,evoke%20dramatic%20emotions%20and%20expressions. Accessed 9 July 2020.

“Kabuki.” Japan-Guide. https://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2090.html. Accessed 9 July 2020.

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