We’re accused of doing whiteface […] If you’ve ever been to Japan, Kabuki art is done in whiteface and deliberately so, which is not racist.
Said Dave Ross of the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society who are currently showing their production of Mikado. Read all about it from Sharon Pian Chan, the Seattle Times editorial columnist and here is the Dave Ross interview with MYNorthwest.
But to the matter in hand the quote from Ross:
If you’ve ever been to Japan, Kabuki art is done in whiteface and deliberately so, which is not racist.
I have been to Japan. Many years ago now and was privileged to see not only Kabuki but also Noh. The following is my lay person’s basic understanding of an art form, that has been practised since the early 1600s.
Kabuki art is done in whiteface – Dave Ross
In a word NO. Kabuki is not done in whiteface. The practise of using make up, Kumadori is, for want of a better explanation, the use of the face as the basis of a living, mobile mask. Unlike Noh where an external mask is used. Making it necessary for expression to be conveyed through the physicality of the body.
In Japanese society a pale skin or “white” if you must, was a sign of high social status. Denoting the lack of need to exposes one’s skin to the harsh elements of nature. In other words, one was wealthy enough to be able to afford servants to carry out manual and menial labour. Artistic depictions of pale beauties on silk screens (as seen above) have been around since the 14th century. Being pale skinned in Japanese society was not a desire to imitate the physical appearance of Westerners. Using white as a base in Kabuki, for the character make up, was also practical and assisted in allowing the audience to more clearly see the faces on stage, in an era prior to artificial lighting. The specific use of make up, Kumadori (literally, “to follow lines”) was designed to work with the actor’s individual bone and facial structure, thus accentuating natural shadows and lines on the actors face.
It has absolutely nothing to do with the imitating the appearance of Caucasians. So Dave Ross and anyone else out there, thinking of using, or talking about other theatrical customs and traditions, stop imposing your own cultural sensibilities and understanding.
And for goodness sake if you’re going to be speaking in public or on the air make sure you have done at least some rudimentary research