Oshiguma ― Kumadori ― Japanese Kabuki Theatre Makeup Prints ― “Leaving an Impression”

by Christopher Agostino

The process of a Kabuki actor applying his makeup is referred to as Kumadori, meaning “taking an impression”, in the sense that the makeup pattern conforms to the inner structure of their face and the interior persona of their designated character. After the performance, the actor may then leave an impression of the makeup on a silk cloth by pressing it against their face, creating an object of art called oshiguma.

Oshiguma of Ichimura-Uzaemon

In the book Kumadori (Toshiro Morita, 1985) there is a gallery of oshiguma prints from makeup worn by the Kabuki actor Ichimura-Uzaemon. The actor explains that the tradition began in earlier times when Kabuki actors needed to supplement their income and did so by making the oshiguma after a performance and selling it to admiring fans. As the prints became prized as art objects, actors would put their makeup on just to make the print:

Ichimura-Uzaemon creating an oshiguma

“A peculiar thing about the “Oshi-dori” [sic] is that an impression taken of Kumadori after performing dynamically on a live stage, seems to come off as if the actor’s actual face was there alive on the cloth. But when an impression is taken of a Kumadori painted only for the purpose of making an “Oshi-dori”, the result is totally lacking in life. It is here we see the mystical quality of the Kumadori.” ― Ichimura-Uzaemon in Kumadori, 1985

1922 oshiguma

Ichimura-Uzaemon is part of a long line of Kabuki actors to bear that name. Kabuki is a theatre tradition that is past on through families (by birth and adoption), as evidenced in this oshiguma from 1922, which featured Ichimura-Uzaemon XV (perhaps his grandfather?). It is described in the BBC radio broadcasts of  The British Museum series “A History of the World in 100 Objects”  as linked to a specific transitional period in modern Kabuki theatre, and includes the makeup prints of three actors that were, respectively, the 4th , the 15th and the 6th of their family’s lineage within the Kabuki theatre:

“An oshiguma, or face pressing by three Kabuki actors; Ichimura Takematsu IV, Ichimura Uzaemon XV and Onoe Baiko VI created after a performance of Momijigari, or Contemplating Maples, at the Shintomiza an old style Kabuki Theater destroyed in the 1923 Tokyo earthquake. They were part of the creative change in the Kabuki world when influences were continuing to open up the perceptions of the Japanese to Western ideas creating a crucible out of which emerged modern playwrights and plays”  (http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/objects/7sG6iEl1SgeooiGokuePHw)


Oshiguma . Collection of Ronald Cavaye

I came upon this wonderful oshiguma image (Nakamura Utaemon VI as the serpent of Sanuki in Nihon Furisode Hajime, May 1984, Kabuki-za. ) accompanied by a remarkable post called “Letter from London” in which Ronald Cavaye describes the experience of seeing a Kabuki performance, the ordeal it can be for the performers, and how the oshiguma is meant to capture the life force of the actor in performance―including the story behind this particular oshiguma. I have excerpted only a brief piece of his post here, and it really is worth going to the link and reading it:

“Everything about this oshiguma seems to convey that this performance was an ordeal. This actor was suffering for his art. There are no finely drawn lines of makeup here. Or rather, they may have been finely drawn by the actor in his dressing room, but here they’re misshaped and deformed by the ineluctable downward trickle of his sweat. The role is that of the eight-tailed serpent in the dance-drama, Nihon Furisode Hajime – 日本振袖始 – performed by Utaemon at the Kabuki-za in May, 1984. I saw that performance. It was amazing and I bought this oshiguma in the National Theatre in Tokyo where it was sold in aid of charity.”  http://www.kabuki-bito.jp/kabuki_column/letterfromlondon/post_197.html

Yves Klein, An "Anthropometry/Shroud"

It is a clear example of how the oshiguma is in itself a work of art, a static object that still contains the energy of the performance. The oshiguma concept inspired the work of art I generated a few years ago from my own Kabuki makeup (at the top of the post). And I wonder at the apparent stylistic connection to Yves Klein and his Anthropometries, which also capture the spirit of a theatrical action through impressing a painted person against cloth or paper (see Men Getting Women Naked and Yves Klein — Female Nudity in Art   http://wp.me/p1sRkg-ll )

And check out  Anatomy of an Oshiguma about that 1922 oshiguma, which includes this description of the medium as “make-up and sweat on silk”


Ichimura-Uzaemon painted himself in several different character patterns for the book “Kumadori”. From left to right, these are Benkei-kuma (“Benkei’s Pattern”), Kuge-Aku (“Evil Aristocrat’s Pattern”), and Saru-kuma (“Monkey Pattern”), and look at how much his face changes from design to design—it would be hard to recognize these as all the same actor.

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