Kabuki Makeup

Kabuki 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 .

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 mask-like 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 of Kabuki. 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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