Kabuki Makeup

ICabuki is a style of traditional Japanese theater that includes music, dance, and drama. First performed by females, after 1629


only male actors could take part in Kabuki, and they played both the male and female characters. Kabuki characters are often drawn from Japanese folklore, and a major part of the Kabuki performance is the dramatic makeup worn by the actors. This makeup is applied heavily to create a brightly painted mask that uses colors in symbolic ways to indicate the age, gender, and class of each character, as well as their moods and personalities.

Japanese Kabuki actors. Kabuki makeup is applied heavily to create a brightly painted mask that uses colors to indicate age, gender, and the moods of each character. Reproduced by permission of AP/Wide World Photos.

Kabuki Makeup Fashion


The oldest and most important theatrical tradition in China is the Peking Opera. Its roots go back to religious pantomime dances performed as early as 3000 B.C.E. By the Han dynasty (207 B.C.E.-220 C.E.) the religious elements of the dance had disappeared, and the performances included dancers, singers, acrobats, and storytellers. The art form was refined after 1790 into the present Peking Opera, which combines various theatrical forms, from tragedy to comedy, ballet to acrobatics. One of the most important components of the storytelling in the Peking Opera is the tradition of painting the actors' faces to tell key parts of the story. In the Peking Opera, painted faces and elaborate costumes are crucial parts of the overall performance.

In the Peking Opera, different actors play specific roles and the meaning of those roles is con veyed by specific colors and patterns of face painting and costume. A mostly red face, for example, stands for courage and loyalty. White represents brutality and cruelty, yellow represents fearfulness, and gold indicates godliness. Other colors also have specific meanings when they are the primary color. Pattern is also extremely important. The specific combination of color and pattern is especially important in pantomime, where the actors use no words.

Both the actors and the makeup artists involved in the Peking Opera take their positions very seriously. Actors begin studying for their parts in the opera when they are still children, and they must master a complex language of body movements and gestures if they are to obtain the best roles. Makeup artists are similarly trained in a school known as "the garden of the eternal spring." The Peking Opera still exists today, with the best known company being the Peking Opera of Beijing, which has toured the world.

Kabuki theater began when female attendants at religious shrines began performing a mixture of folk dance and religious dance. These dance performances became very popular with all classes of Japanese people, but the performances often became rowdy and sexually suggestive. This led the government to try to control the effects of the dances on the public, and in 1629 a law was passed banning female performers. Soon, the all-male dances that resulted were combined with elements from a popular puppet theater called bunraku and became Kabuki, a form of traditional folk art that is still popular in Japan today.

Makeup is one of the most important parts of Kabuki theater. Each actor applies his own makeup, with the process of applying makeup allowing the actor to get to know the character he plays. First, the actor applies oils and waxes on his face to help the makeup stick to the skin. Then a thick coat of white makeup called oshiroi is put on to cover the whole face. The white face creates a dramatic look onstage, and many historians believe that the white faces were more easily seen in the centuries before stages were lit


with electricity. The oshiroi is made of rice powder, and different shades of white are used depending on the age, class, and gender of the character. On this white face, red and black lines are used to outline the eyes and mouth, which are also shaped differently for male and female characters.

For supernatural heroes and villains, which appear frequently in Kabuki plays, there is a special style of makeup called kumadori. Kumadori is made up of dramatic lines and shapes applied in different colors, each representing different qualities. The most commonly used colors are dark red, which represents anger, passion, or cruelty, and dark blue, which represents sadness or depression. Other common colors are pink, representing youth or cheerfulness; light blue or green, representing calm; purple for nobility; brown for selfishness; and black for fear. There are about a hundred different masklike styles of kumadori makeup.

The makeup of Kabuki actors is considered such an important aspect of the performance that it is common for actors to press a silk cloth to their faces to make a print of their makeup when the play is over. These cloth face-prints become valued souvenirs of the Kabuki performance.


Leiter, Samuel L. The Art ofKabuki. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1979.

Scott, A. C. The Kabuki Theatre of Japan. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1999.

Shaver, Ruth. Kabuki Costume. Boston, MA: Tuttle Publishing, 1990.

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