KABUKI ABC (39) / Kumadori: Distinctive makeup emphasizes facial features to reveal roles, personalities

By Junichiro Shiozaki / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterKumadori is the distinctive makeup worn by kabuki actors. Pigments of red, blue, brown and other colors are applied in lines on white foundation on the face. The colors and lines depend on the character, but the combined effect is always meant to exaggerate the blood vessels and muscles of the face.

Kumadori makeup is mainly used in “aragoto” pieces. Aragoto is a style of kabuki that originated in Edo (present-day Tokyo), characterized by its portrayals of valiant warriors, fierce demons and superhuman beings with magical powers. The style is said to have been established by Ichikawa Danjuro I at the end of the 17th century, when Genroku culture was at its height.

Kabuki actors in the Kansai region, meanwhile, are said to have begun wearing kumadori makeup after the Meiji Restoration in the late 19th century, when they began to interact with actors in the Tokyo region. The style they adopted is still worn by Kansai actors today.

According to Kenichiro Ishibashi, chief researcher of performing arts at the National Theatre’s research and training department, kumadori, though often thought to capture the essence of kabuki, is best regarded as simply a makeup technique.

“Generally speaking, makeup is more or less meant to enhance people’s facial features,” Ishibashi said. “Kumadori is one of the techniques for exaggerating and creating better stage effects.”

Ishibashi’s comments are based on the fact that actors must still apply a certain amount of white foundation, lip rouge, eyeliner and other cosmetics even when performing pieces that do not call for kumadori.

“Instead of regarding kumadori as something completely strange, it’s best to consider it an extension of regular makeup,” the researcher said. “Kumadori simply emphasizes the muscles and blood vessels of the face. It’s not adding something extra that doesn’t exist.”

Kumadori is often said to resemble the makeup of Chinese opera. However, Ishibashi disputes this view, saying Chinese opera’s makeup is more akin to painting and thus unlike kumadori’s focus on applying colors to emphasize facial features.

An unproven theory holds that kumadori originated from Buddhist sculptural motifs, such as the muscular Nio statues that guard the Buddha at many temples.

The typical features of kumadori can be seen in kabuki masterpiece “Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami.” A scene in the piece called “Kurumabiki” features four characters wearing the makeup.

Poised to launch a righteous attack on the procession of an influential minister and villain named Fujiwara no Shihei, triplets Umeomaru and Sakuramaru are suddenly confronted by Matsuomaru, a retainer of Shihei and the third triplet. Umeomaru and Sakuramaru become frozen when Shihei gazes upon them.

Kumadori’s colors represent the traits of the characters: red for justice, blue for vice and brown for apparitions. Umeomaru, the most powerful character among the four, has an intricate red kumadori called “suji-guma” that represents a brave hero fighting for justice. Sakuramaru, the meekest character, has a gentle kumadori called “mukimi-guma.” This type represents gallant young men. Meanwhile, Matsuomaru’s “nihon-guma” type of kumadori emphasizes the eyes and eyebrows to create a forceful expression. Finally, Shihei has a blue “kuge-are” that represents evil noblemen.

Audience members can tell the performer’s role from the type of kumadori worn.

“There is said to be about 50 types of kumadori, but only 10 or so are actually used on stage,” Ishibashi said. “One might discover new varieties as the actors add their twists to those regular patterns.”

Trying to determine the role and personality of each character based on the actor’s makeup is one of the many enjoyable elements of kabuki.

— Shiozaki is a specialist in kabuki.

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