Essay Series 2018 #01
Yasuko Ikeuchi “Representations of the Actress or Female”

Tari Ito "Where is the Fear?" January 2001. Part of the exhibition "Ekkyō Suru On'na Tachi 21", Hillside Forum, Tokyo.  Photo: Fumino Shibata Tari Ito "Where is the Fear?" January 2001. Part of the exhibition "Ekkyō Suru On'na Tachi 21", Hillside Forum, Tokyo.  Photo: Fumino Shibata

The first of our essay series is by professor and theater researcher Yasuko Ikeuchi, an expert in modern theater and gender theory she is also well known for her book The Birth and Demise of the Actress: Performance and Gender.

About the Essay Series:
Kyoto Experiment 2018 focuses on female artists or artists and companies that identify as female. Bringing the words “woman” or “female” to the fore in this way encourages us to realize a wide variety of perspectives that offer a cross section of contemporary society, from the unease we feel from everyday conversations and customs to broader issues of gender seen in social and historical contexts. This relay-style series of essays presents texts by specialists from different fields that problematize feminism not as an issue only for women but for society as a whole. We hope that they will provide opportunities for audiences to gain deeper insights into the festival programs. (The articles will be published approximately once every two weeks.)

Representations of the Actress or Female

The “rebellion of the body” is a key phrase important for discussing theater and Butoh from the 1960s of 1970s. It is the expression of the flesh (body) that defies the gender norms and discourse of modernist bourgeois society to produce shocking performances with variant and alien aspects.

“Rebellion of the body” connotes both a rebellion or inundation of gender/sex as well as a nature that is rebellious or oppositional—above all, the invasive gender representation of a prostitute played by an actress or a male prostitute expressed in Butoh was, though specific, aspiring to show an essential, universal humanity.

When comparing the performing arts of the 1960s and 1970s with the 1990s, the theater critic Hidenaga Otori draws attention to what he calls the “disappearance of the actress” as a new characteristic of body expression. What is particularly interesting here is that he identifies that this is accompanied by the foregrounding of sexual difference.

As I argued in my book The Birth and Demise of the Actress: Performance and Gender, the “actress” is prescribed within modern theater and its framework, which emerged as a project of the modern nation-state and empire—that is, the “actress” and its body expression is not unrelated to the formation and systematization of gender as a requirement of national unity. In order to produce “fine” national citizens (subjects), the Empire of Japan at the time established a household system according to units of couples comprising a male patriarch and a woman subordinate to him, thereby managing sex and reproduction. This strengthened the formation of gender based on asymmetrical gender dualism, while homosexuality was pathologized as “deviant” sexuality.

Within the framework of a heterosexism founded on gender dualism, when the male audience makes himself the subject (agency) as the universal audience, the actress as an object of that desire does not disappear. However, if we problematize this construction of the male heterosexual audience as the universal subject, then the actress as an object of desire is also problematized. We might say that this is the disappearance of the actress. Moreover, the actress surely disappears when, in another context, the actress herself as an expressive subject problematizes the definition of the actress until now, and problematizes the gender symbolism imposed on the actress.

The aforementioned underground theater from the 1960s to 1970s represented the body of the actress or male prostitute as a symbol of resistance or rebellion, though the political nature of the gender categories of gender dualism—femaleness (the feminine principle) and maleness (the male principle)—were not addressed, nor was the relationship of power that operates there or the male-female asymmetrical relationship doubted. Since the 1990s, performance artists such as Dumb Type and Tari Ito dealing with gay and lesbian sexuality have problematized the dominant heterosexism, attempting to foreground and visualize the sexual difference that is denied in a society where homophobia is rampant. In this sense, their performance was intimately connected to the realization of sexual agency of the self or, so to speak, to the search for the possibilities of survival.

In performance art, which opposed the systematized modern theater framework and formed as a different genre, the artist appears as someone performing and continuing to redefine one’s own art, not as an actress but as a performance artist. It has attempted to problematize the norms and discourse related to sexual difference while, simultaneously, problematize the overtness of representation and various categories compositively forming the identity of the self and other, such as the body, language, family, nation, and ethnicity. Moreover, when the male is universalized and given invisible power as the subject, the re-questioning critically of the effects of that asymmetrical power has been practiced by female or feminist artists, audiences, and critics.

Tari Ito “Where is the Fear?” January 2001. Part of the exhibition “Ekkyō Suru On’na Tachi 21”, Hillside Forum, Tokyo. Photo (above): Fumino Shibata, (below): Unknown


Incidentally, when discussing subject and identity, it becomes immensely difficult to assume self-identity is consistent. The feminist critical theorist Judith Butler argues that the construction of the subject necessitates an external that constitutes the subject—that is, on what is the subject there clings something that has been excluded as something other than it. There is a danger of ignoring the effect of the power demanding things be consistently uniform. The debate over feminism in the United States is a re-questioning of subject and identity by blue-collar workers, refugees, immigrants, and marginalized and othered nonwhite women.

When discussing identity and otherness, the German philosophy scholar Kazuyuki Hosomi intriguingly evokes the image of a wave. The crest of the wave, swelling, floating, and then disappearing, arises from the endless conflict between the air and water pressure, meaning the identity of the crest is not something that can be returned to either seawater or air, but rather a “singular relationship each time between the air and water that are mutual others.” Neither a clear-cut contradiction nor established consistently, the self and other are exposed as reciprocal others, in conflict, and existing within a relationship that is undertaken each time. It is surely also necessary to reinterpret the representation of women within this relationship.

Recommended Reading
Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990)

Tari Ito, trans. Rebecca Jennison, Move: Ito Tari’s Performance Art (Tokyo: Impact Shuppankai 2012)

Yasuko Ikeuchi, The Birth and Demise of the Actress: Performance and Gender (Tokyo: Heibonsha, 2008)


Yasuko Ikeuchi

Born in Nagasaki, 1947. Ikeuchi is a professor at Ritsumeikan Unviersity and a specialist in theater and gender theory. She authored Feminism and Contemporary Theater (Tabata, 1994) and The Birth and Demise of the Actress: Performance and Gender (Tokyo: Heibonsha, 2008). She co-edited The Body of a Stranger – On Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (Jimbunshoin, 2006) and was editor of the translation of Judith E. Barlow’s Plays by American Women: 1900 – 1930 (Shinsui, 1988) and of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictée (Seidosha, 2003). Her other texts include Performances of Masculinity in Angura Theatre: Suzuki Tadashi on the Actress and Sato Makoto’s Abe Sada’s Dogs (Performance Paradigm, #2, 2006.8) a journal published jointly by the School of Media, Film and Theatre, UNSW, the School of Creative Arts, University of Melbourne and Performance Space, Kishida Rio’s Wasurenagusa (Forget-Me-Not): A Japanese Version of Frank Wedekind’s Lulu (Scholz-Cionca & Leiter eds, Japanese Theatre and the International Stage, 2001), The ‘Actress’ and Japanese Modernity: Subject, Body, Gaze (Asian Journal of Women’s Studies by the Asian Center for Women’s Studies, Ewha Woman’s University Press. Vol.6, No.1 2000.3) and many others.