Dipartimento di Musica e Spettacolo - CONFERENZE, Women and the Silent Screen Conference

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“More woman than a woman” : Oyama’s Femininity and Actress’s modernization in 1910s Japanese film
Sawako Ogawa

Last modified: 2010-05-28


This paper examines the transition from Oyama to actress within the Japanese cinema, illuminating issues of femininity and modernity that are linked to it.  In early Japanese cinema, up until circa 1922, female roles were almost exclusively played by Oyama, male actors dressed in elaborate drag and acting in a formalized fashion. The Oyama embodied a highly stylized concept of femininity, and were seen, through the eyes of the contemporary, male oriented, society as the pinnacle of femininity.

However, during the 1910s the Oyama came to be perceived as one of the reasons that Japanese films did not progress stylistically, instead continuing to be a copy of the Japanese stage arts. For instance the use of the Oyama was one of the reasons for the early Japanese cinema’s lack of close-ups, as they would reveal the actor’s masculine face and destroy the illusion of femininity. In the wake of the Japanese Pure Film Movement that strove to modernize and Americanize the Japanese cinema, and before the Great Kanto earthquake in 1923, the Oyama all but disappeared, replaced by actresses.

However, the audience of the time thought that the Oyama’s graceful carriage, as on the Kabuki stage, conveyed a stronger sense of femininity than a genuine actress’s acting style. It was said that the Oyama was “more woman than a woman”, but there is little research on how the Oyama’s acting style created this kind of femininity. Furthermore there is no systematic research on Oyama and the early female stars. This paper will look at these issues and suggest what is changed and lost in the transition from Oyama to actress, what the audience/critics wanted that only an actress could provide, and how the Oyama acting style came to develop during this period. To clarify the femininity of Oyama, the acting mode of Oyama and actresses will be compared stylistically.

After a brief overview of the Oyama’s history and function both on stage and screen, I will analyze the difference in acting style and character portrayal by juxtaposing the performances of Teijiro Tachibana, the most famous Oyama of the 1910s, Teinosuke Kinugasa and Takeo Higashi in Ukiyo (Floating World, 1916) with those of Yuriko Hanabusa, Sumiko Kurishima, Chitose Hayashi and Kasen Nakamura, the first Japanese female stars, in Rojyo no Reikon (Souls on the road, 1921), Hototogisu (The cuckoo, 1922), Kantsubaki (Winter camellia, 1921) and Sendaihagi (1916).

As the transition from Oyama to actress continued, several changes occurred within the Japanese film. In particular, the plots of Japanese films were subject to change, as was female audience reception as a result of the transition. Tracing such changes through contemporary publications such as Kinema-Record, Katsudou Shashinzasshi, Katsudou no Sekai, and Katsudou Gahou I will argue that the Oyama’s acting served as a kind of nationalistic symbol, and that modernization of film style and plot was achieved by the transition from Oyama to actresses.


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