Kabuki & the art of transformation

Kabuki is a form of traditional Japanese drama that emerged (1603-1868) at the beginning of the Edo period. Originally created by and performed exclusively by women, until females were banned in 1629, Kabuki is still recognised as an art in which actors wear Kesho, a very heavy and dramatic white makeup, which historians believe made it easier for actors to be seen onstage in the centuries before they were lit with electricity.

In the art of kabuki, there is no specialist for the makeup, rather the actor that is playing the role does their own make up in the spirit that the makeup is part of the act. It is designed to show the individual character of both the role, and the actor, and is unique for each person. 

The use of transformational makeup in many cultures can be traced back to ancient religious rituals and as such ceremonies evolved into theatre over time, performances maintained elements of the ritual origins without the specific religious context, including elements of masking and makeup to allow modern performers to portray supernatural and mythological figures, transforming the actors.

A functionality of any extravagant transformational makeup like this is to generate the suspension of disbelief in the audience so that they can accept the convention that they are in the presence of supernatural beings during a performance.

The process of applying makeup also allows the actor to get to know the character they play. The concentrated process of painting oneself is part of the actor’s internal preparation to present the mythic persona required. 

For supernatural heroes and villains, which appear frequently in Kabuki plays, there is a special style of makeup called kumadori. In the original tradition, Kumadori was applied by actors with their fingers so they could take the pattern of their bone structure as they painted themselves. It is not considered so much face painting as “pattern-taking”, as in an actor ‘taking an impression’ of their own face. The makeup itself does not function as a mask to hide the actor. It is designed to capture and project the expressions of the actor in enhanced form, to externalize the inner persona of a role through a design that responds to the actor’s features.

Today the Kumadori still lives and moves in Kabuki with each facial gesture of the actor, through designs bold enough to project the performance throughout the theatre. 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 performance.

Author and Kabuki make up expert, CHRISTOPHER AGOSTINO, explains, 

“In its original function, body art, from tribal origins through modern cultures, is a social act, elevating an individual above his natural/animal state to mark him as a member of human culture and his specific social group. In modern cultures, transformational makeup survives in the arts, in theatre, in movies, where its most profound use is to take the wearer beyond his humanity so he can portray the supernatural and the superhuman.” 

Kabuki BAM is my new series of works on paper depicting futuristic nudes with hair and makeup inspired by the Kabuki technique of 'masking' to transform and find the character within.