In 2012, legendary “actress” Yamada Isuzu (b. 1917) passed away in Japan. Yamada has been internationally known because of her acting in films such as Mizoguchi Kenji's Osaka Elegy (1936), Naruse Mikio's Flowing (1956), and Kurosawa Akira's Throne of Blood (1957). Overshadowed by her well-recognized contribution to the films is her achievement in Kabuki acting. The Kabuki theater is an all-male theater, with its onnagata actors playing women's roles. Despite the intermittent presence of female Kabuki actors over the history of Kabuki, their achievements have not received the recognition they deserve, and today, the notion that onnagata must be male actors, and female actors cannot do the job is considered common knowledge both in popular and academic discourses. Yamada, however, had substantial stage experience in Kabuki, performing hand in hand with major Kabuki actors. Moreover, her acting was said to remind some — critics and Kabuki actors — of “women actors,” that is, female Kabuki actors around the beginning of the twentieth century. They were trained in Kabuki acting, used the same acting techniques as that of male Kabuki actors, and were evaluated by the same criteria as that of the male actors. Thus the highest compliment for female onnagata was “indistinguishable from male onnagata.” Yamada performed Kabuki in this manner, too. Her Kabuki achievement assures us that the art of onnagata has been available to female actors, if talented, trained, and dedicated to the art; considering the prevailing “common knowledge,” however, Yamada's accomplishment of Kabuki acting as well as what it can tell us will probably be subdued in historiography soon.

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