collage by monica brand
collage by monica brand

The beauty of Kabuki theatre- porcelain-like faces, cherry lips, and perfectly painted black winged eyelids behind the fan of a dancing geisha in elaborate costume and a fantastical mask of makeup- is as relevant today as it was centuries ago. Before the first geisha manifested exaggerated femininity, Izumo no Okuni performed a seductive dance drama in Kyoto. In reaction to the overt sexuality of the performances, only male actors were permitted to publicly perform in Kabuki plays.  Dramatic red and black shapes outlined the eyes and mouth to distinguish the gender roles of the striking faces hovering on stages void of electricity.  
Kabuki makeup (‘Kesho’ or ‘kumadori’) is composed of graphic lines, shapes, and hues. Colors indicate the characters’ moods and personalities: red represented anger, passion, and cruelty; blue signified sadness or depression; purple highlighted nobility and pink portrayed youth or cheerfulness; green captured a sense of calm, while fear claimed a matte black. A Kabuki actor would prep skin with oils and waxes, insuring the paste adhere to flesh.  A thick coat of white makeup called oshiroi- made of rice powder- was then used to cover the face, creating a canvas for the abstracted geometric shapes. Actors commonly pressed silk cloths to their faces after performances, creating prints of the makeup and valuable souvenirs. 
Kabuki makeup has since been adapted in contemporary cinema. Isabella Rossellini’s Dorothy Valens croons Blue Velvet in powdered face, cobalt eyeshadow, and crimson lips. Helena Bonham Carter’s Queen of Hearts in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland dons Kabuki makeup to emphasize dramatic eccentricities.  Natalie Portman’s Star Wars character, Padmé Amadila, sat upon the Queen’s throne in Kabuki regalia. Blade Runner ‘s replicant Prim, played by Daryl Hannah, is a disheveled doll whose kabuki inspired make-up is spray painted on- highlighting the symbolism of the retina in the futuristic science fiction fantasy. In the film adaptation of The Hunger Games, Effie Trinkets character, played by Elizabeth Banks, is transformed into a space-aged sadistic geisha- complete with the signature powdered white face, crimson pout, and brazen eyes that balance outlandish costumes.
Park Chan Wook’s Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, the final chapter of a stunning, surreal art film trilogy, focuses on a woman released from prison- after serving a lengthy sentence for a murder she did not commit.  On a quest for revenge, the heroin is depicted with fierce red pigments painted around her eyes- perhaps an ode to Kabuki’s disguised gaze. ( Lady Vengeance is in pre-production, with Charlize Theron slated to headline the main role.)  

From Takashi Murakami’s exaggerated anime patterns to Yoshitomo Nara’s petulant girls Kabuki’s influence bolsters contemporary Japanese art. Yayoi Kusama, transforms the Kabuki aesthetic with manic polka dots smothering mixed media installations and performances.  Yoko Ono’s post Grapefruit performance book, Acorn, includes a series of kabuki inspired polka dot drawings. Fashion designer Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons, whose Taschen fashion book features a cover model with a migrating mouth, scatters polka dots on wallets, sneakers, and draped gowns. Yohji Yamamoto punctuates perfect white button down shirt- black suit ensembles with a Kabuki-esque vision. 

Kabuki also inspires this seasons beauty trends.  Reveal a thin line of black vinyl along the lash line. Adorn lips with intense crimson in multiple shades of red, a Pat McGrath signature. Embrace a triangle manicure, as created by Jin Soon Choi. Add a bright berry blush to cheekbones for the allure of a flushed face.

The classical theater tradition, which is considered to have initiated pop culture within Japan, lends itself to global Avant-Garde fantasy translations. Think Guy Bourdin on a dramatic circus date with Alexander Calder. A karaoke duet between Mark Rothko and Ellsworth Kelly - filmed by Spike Jonze. A Fornasetti / Sonia Delaunay collaboration - documented by Inez & Vinoodh. Journey to Japan via a museum visit or create a Kabuki redux night at home- skin lightly powdered, lips stained red, indulging in omakase with a bit of sake and lounging in a kimono to watch a Kurosawa film.

September 2013