The small pout of the mouth, coy glance to
one side, flutter of the eyelids and delicate stamp of the foot are all trademarks of the onnagata
Kabuki female role impersonator, and when performed by the most renowned of all the
onnagata, Bando Tamasaburo, they are exquisitely alluring.
The ethereal beauty of this willowy and supple 5' actor is his greatest asset and
yet perhaps his greatest handicap. More than any other onnagata he can convince an
audience of his seeming gender transformation, but because audiences tend to concentrate
solely on his beauty, they often fail to recognize the amount of skill and artistry
involved in making what he does look simple. Moreover, because his image as a beautiful
woman is so strong, when he performs such Kabuki roles as spiders or multi-headed demons,
for which he must use more masculine movements and gruff growls, they almost seem like
mistakes and the audience cannot adjust to the novelty quickly enough.
Perhaps in an effort to force people to recognize his broader abilities, Tamasaburo takes
daring artistic risks and tackles projects that will push him to the limit. He is unique
among the onnagata in that he appears as a woman alongside actresses in Shakespearean and
other non-Kabuki performances, on stage, in film, and in experimental drama by
non-Japanese directors. Furthermore, he is a talented film director in his own right,
creating costumes and sets for his work. While Tamasaburo is head of his own Japanese
dance school, he has also danced with Western ballet stars like Bejart and Barishnikov, in
Peking opera and solo to Yo Yo Ma's cello accompaniment.
Several years ago Tamasaburo had his own mobile stage custom built, and this makes it
possible for him to perform widely around the nation. At the same time he can pursue his
passion for preserving old Kabuki theatres, some in little-known or remote locations, his
appearances at which have given them a new lease of life.
Now 49, Tamasaburo had already decided his life's work by the age of five after seeing the
great onnagata Nakamura Utaemon (1917-). Although he was born outside the Kabuki world,
Tamasaburo excelled in Japanese dance from a young age and he was given children's roles
in Kabuki from the age of six. Then at 14 he was adopted by Morita Kan'ya XV and thus
gained the pedigree necessary to make his way successfully through the ranks to the top of
the Kabuki world. Early in his career, his stage partnerships with male role specialists
Ebizo (now Danjuro) and Takao (now Nizaemon) gave him multiple opportunities to play many
of the leading female roles in the Kabuki repertoire and make them his own. He is
acclaimed for his ability to portray not only women's outer charms, but also their inner
feelings, especially of suffering.
The onnagata's task is to portray a stylized beauty, and so the actor's real age is
inconsequential, and there is nothing incongruous about a 70-year old actor portraying an
18-year old maiden. However, in Tamasaburo's case, as an actor whose fame is so closely
linked to his physical good looks, the task of redefining his image as he ages will be
particularly challenging. Jean Wilson