The Mimetic Act: Japanese Traditional Female Impersonation beyond the Dichotomy between Appearance and Reality

By Yukihide Endo.

Published by The Humanities Collection

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

The long tradition behind female impersonation in both mainstream and nonmainstream Kabuki demonstrates that artistic integrity, rather than mere visual realism, is of great importance. Despite the well-established recognition of orthodox Kabuki, this paper focuses on the marginalized (Kabuki-inspired) popular theatre whose troupes lead a monthly itinerant lifestyle, moving from one playhouse to another nationwide. Recently, this popular theatre has begun to draw wider attention due to increased internet and smartphone usage.
Its acclaimed female impersonators (onnagata) in their teens and twenties—much younger than their mainstream counterparts—are able to make visible and believable imaginary and stylized feminine attractiveness. These young actors, employing Kabuki’s aesthetics, don’t pursue surface realism. Instead, they strive to artistically construct enigmatic and fascinating images of femininity that occur in the “mind’s eye” and in the imagination of the audience. Often they are so mysterious as to become gender-ambiguous.
In order to clarify this artistic construction of enigmatic eroticism, I will argue that the Polish-born German surrealist (visual) artist Hans Bellmer’s (1902-1975) perceptions of the adolescent female body help to transcend the conventional dichotomy between appearance and reality. His conceptual and visual disruption of the body is well illustrated by his multi-genre artwork that includes puppets shaped as two physically connected girls’ lower bodies in a straight line. Like the actors above, these images of “girls” evoke gender ambiguity, even reminding viewers of a phallus. Thus, both the actors and the puppets help to reveal the dormant eroticism hidden within ourselves.

Keywords: Appearance-Reality Dichotomy, Female Impersonation, Hans Bellmer, Japanese Traditional Theatre, Mimesis, (Modoki)

International Journal of the Humanities, Volume 9, Issue 9, pp.211-222. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 843.422KB).

Dr. Yukihide Endo

Professor in English, Department of General Education, Hamamatsu University School of Medicine, Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan

I teach English at a Japanese medical school and do theatre-and film-related research focusing on artistic and futuristic representations of the human body. The academic culture at my workplace has helped me to explore new perspectives on the body, and thus I am interested not only female impersonation in Kabuki but also in prostheticized bodies and cyborgs. I received a BA and MA in English literature from Japanese universities. I also earned an MA from Northwestern University (1996) and PhD (2007) from UCLA both in theatre studies. Recently I’ve been an active participant in international conferences making oral presentation on the body and publishing articles.

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