Izumo no Okuni
The Creator of Kabuki
When I first learned about Okuni, I was so pissed I had never heard of her before.
She basically created an all-female sketch comedy troupe that became so popular and powerful that WOMEN WERE BANNED FROM THE STAGE
So here’s the story.
Okuni was a miko, loosely translated as “shrine maiden.” This was a gig that could involve many different Temple Tasks™ including shamanic rituals, religious dancing and sacred sex work.
Around 1603, Okuni left her town of Shimane and traveled nearly four hundred miles to Kyoto to raise money for her temple by dancing and busking on the streets.
Okuni’s style of dancing was brazen and sexual, witty and winky—and the people LOVED it. They couldn’t get enough!
She was supposed to head home after her fundraising mission, but her star was rising in Kyoto so she stayed put.
Okuni set up an outdoor theater on the dry riverbed of the Kamo River. She assembled a troupe of local female sex workers and social outcasts and trained them in her unique style of acting, singing and dancing.
Their performances started getting more creative and comedic.
Okuni wrote humorous sketches that poked fun at men’s interactions with sex workers.
She did funny impressions of Shinto priests she had worked with at the shrine.
She crossdressed and wore outrageous costumes. And her troupe joined in the fun.
It was a loud, fast, colorful, hilarious, daring theatrical spectacle unlike anything that came before. This was KABUKI!!!
Okuni’s fame continued to spread, and she was even summoned to perform at the Imperial Court in Edo (modern day Tokyo).
There was such a high demand for this brand-new art form that rival female troupes started to pop up all across Japan. Kabuki went VIRAL.
Okuni retired in 1610 and is thought to have died several years later, but her legacy was secure: she had created a super-popular all-female comedy-dance tradition that would surely carry on forever.
Here’s what happened after her death...
The government wasn’t happy about the rapid rise of kabuki, because of the sex trade that sometimes accompanied the performances.
In their eyes:
Women were too powerful
and too public
and making too much money
and having too much sex
and uniting the common people
And corrupting the order of things.
This wouldn’t stand!!!
In a moral panic in 1629, the shōgun forbade women from performing kabuki, THE VERY GENRE INVENTED BY A WOMAN.
All of the female dancers were phased out and replaced by hot young men playing both male and female roles.
But the government wasn’t happy with this solution, because many of the male actors engaged in the sex trade, too.
Eventually the hot young men were banned from the stage just like women...and adult men took their place. Apparently nobody wanted to pay adult men for sex??
Kabuki evolved from there, transforming into a very different (yet still awesome) art form from what Okuni established.
It became an elaborate form of dance-drama with scripted storylines, stylized character types, spectacular production design and grandiose makeup and costumes.
The law banning female performers was relaxed in 1888, but kabuki is still male-dominated to this day.
But Okuni started it all. A combination of erotic dance, sketch comedy, impressions, crossdressing, wild costumes and lady power.
THANK YOU, OKUNI!