Stage Makeup

Mary Mariko Ohno, who is an artist and instructor of Japanese dance, Naga-uta shamisen musician, as well as an instructor of Japanese language (Nihon-go) at Tacoma Community College, Seattle Central Community College, and at her studio in Tacoma, Washington, is willing to share the beauty of Kabuki Arts with you in one of her Kabuki Academy courses. Mary Ohno conducts Kabuki style “Stage makeup” classes from time to time, and teaches the general idea of white colored stage makeup which is well coordinated along with those costumes, wigs and other stage props on the stage.

What’s the significance of white makeup? In Japan white skin has traditionally been associated with the aristocracy, the logical reasoning behind this being that they were not exposed to the sun while working in the fields. However, in certain plays, such as Benten Kozo or Kirare Yosa, in which low-class characters play the major role, a pure white base is employed. As principal characters they were required to artistically project to the audience, and in the days before electric lighting, the white base helped to accomplish this. The face and neck are first covered with oil and then with a thick covering of white cream known as “oshiroi”. When a female role is being played, the oshiroi will also extend a long way down the back because of the very low back-collar line of the kimono.

The white base obliterates the actor’s features, in particular the lips and eyebrows. Eyebrows are painted on somewhat higher than actual eyebrows, and the eyes are subtly lined in black for men and red for women. Lip rouge and black are used to produce a downward curve to the mouths of the men. The female mouth is also red and made smaller, with a slightly thicker lower lip – the ideal of feminine beauty.

Kabuki makeup (kesho) may be separated into two distinct types: the standard makeup employed for the majority of characters and “kumadori”, used for superheroes and villains and seen most frequently in the aragoto acting style.

As Kabuki developed as an art, so too did “kumadori”. At one time there may have been over one hundred different types in use. Today there are far fewer, with only ten or fifteen being commonly seen. Styles range from the subtle lip rouge and eye highlights of the “mukimi-guma” style for the famous role of “Sukeroku”, to the more complex nihon suji-guma for “Gongoro”, the hero of “Shibaraku”. After the lines are painted on with a brush or the fingertip, the hard lines are smudged with the finger to soften and blend them into the white base.

The above text is reprinted from

Kabuki: A Pocket Guide by Ronald Cavaye Copyright(c)1993 Charles E. Tuttle Company, Inc.

By permission of Tuttle Publishing