Distinguished Women of Past and Present

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Izumo no Okuni

(ca. 1571-?)

Izumo no Okuni was born about 1571. This time period in Japanese history was fraught with struggle. It was known as the Period of Warring States, that is, the land barrons (daimyo) fought against one another for power. Her father was a blacksmith for the Izumo Grand Shrine and, consequently, the family served as well.

It was a custom to send priests and young women, such as Buddhist nuns, among others to solicit contributions. Izumo was sent to Kyoto to perform sacred dances and songs. She was beautiful and talented. She was innovative as well. Soon her performances received a lot of attention and drew large crowds. Ignoring the summons to return to the Shrine, she set up her own theatre on the banks of the Shijo River in Kyoto. This was a long-known gathering place for the kabukimono, young people and those not so young, who felt alienated and displaced, the homeless, and those who might qualify as the "hippies" of the day. The word Kabuki is the nominal form of the verb kabuku, "to incline in a certain direction" and mono is a certain slang term for people, usually young, who dared to defy the mores of the day.

She called her dance performances Kabuki. The performances were gaudy, musical, noisy and colorful. Izumo played parts both male and female. Initially, Kabuki, was a sort of a line dance and song with no significant plot. It evolved into drama with the aid of Sanzaburo Ujisato. He wrote scripts and supported her both financially and emotionally. They were lovers. With his untimely death she continued without him, hiring writers but integrating the drama with music and dance.

Her revue met with great success, and her Okuni Kabuki was known and applauded throughout the land. After 25 years she retired. By that time there were many imitations of her form of theatre entertainment. Even brothels offered such shows to amuse wealthy clients. Because of this, the Shogun at that time, Tokugawa Ieyasu, forbade women to perform and thus men were cast into the roles of women in the Kabuki dramas. Even to this day such men are admired as matinee idols. Often one will see them on billboards, post cards, paintings, etc. with eyes crossed. This indicates great tension, confusion, the intensity of making a pained decision...

Incidentally, Izumo no Okuni introduced the hanamichi, the "flower path," or runway leading to the stage from the left rear of the theatre, crossing between the audience.

Contributed by Florence Prusmack, author of Khan: a romantic historical novel based on the early life of Ghenghis Khan, in 1998.

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