Theatre Unbound - Did You Know - Okuni

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Kabuki was invented by a woman.

Izumo no Okuni (1572?-1620?), or “Okuni from Izumo”, was a dancer at the Shinto shrine in Izumo in Shimane Prefecture, Japan. Around 1603, she developed a new style of performance which included both dancing and short satirical skits. Some of the leading characters in these skits were based on kabuki-mono or “eccentric people”, defined by Yoko Takakuwa as “young men with ‘unusual’ (but perhaps fashionable) clothes and hairstyles.” Okuni specialized in these kabuki-mono male roles.

In 1629, the Tokugawa Shogunate banned women from the stage, claiming that fights were breaking out in the audiences among rivals for the alluring actresses’ sexual favors. All-male troupes began performing kabuki (whereupon fights broke out in the audiences among rivals for the alluring actors’ sexual favors). Kabuki remained an all-male domain for more than 250 years.

Further reading:

  • Kominz, Laurence R. “Origins of Kabuki Acting in Medieval Japanese Drama” in Samuel L. Leiter, ed. A kabuki reader: history and performance (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2002).

  • Takakuwa, Yoko. “Performing Marginality: The Place of the Player and of “Woman” in Early Modern Japanese Culture.” New Literary History v. 27 no. 2 (1996), pp. 213-225.