kabuki makeupKabuki is a style of Japanese dance-drama, sometimes translated as “the art of singing and dancing” that can be traced back to 1603 when Izumo no Okuni, a temple maiden in Kyoto, began performing it in dry riverbeds. It was considered quite avant-garde, even for its time, and quickly gained popularity in the Edo courts. This style of theater perseveres today, having undergone a number of metamorphoses and changes over the centuries, but it remains popular with both the Japanese and Westerners, with many actors from Kabuki stages being given film and television roles alongside their classical performances.

Many things make Kabuki special, but arguably the most recognizable trait of the Kabuki actor are the elegant costumes and elaborate, distinctive Kabuki makeup. If you happen to be interested in the history of makeup and cosmetics, learning about Kabuki makeup and what it signifies is a very interesting place to start!

Kabuki: A Quick History

When Kabuki was first performed, it’s plays were mainly centered around comical glimpses into court and country life, with all of its performers being female. It was known as onna-Kabuki, or female Kabuki, and it quickly grew in popularity, and became more raunchy and ribald as the years passed. The ruling shogunate began to grow wary of the style and eventually it was banned altogether in 1629 for being “too erotic”.

It was at this point that yara-Kabuki, or male Kabuki took over. The themes and revelry remained largely the same, with men cross-dressing for onnugata, or female roles. Eventually even the depiction of women at all  in Kabuki was banned, but that ban was rescinded. During the Genroku era, Kabuki entered its golden age, and shortly thereafter drew the attention of Westerners and visiting dignitaries.

Kabuki today is still very prominently performed with an all male cast, but there have been some all-female troupes and even mixed-cast productions in recent times.

Okay, But What About Kabuki Makeup?

All right, history lesson over. You know what Kabuki make-up looks like–the white face, the striking, expressive lines. But did you know that Kabuki makeup carries an important significance to the art itself?

Collectively, Kabuki makeup is called Kesho, and it’s broken into two parts:


Oshiroi is the distinct white makeup that a Kabuki actor wears on his or her face. It was traditionally made from rice powder, but is now sometimes made synthetically. Why white?

Well, very pale skin was closely related to aristocracy, and it could be that the original onna-Kabuki used the oshiroi to distinguish high-class characters from the low-class ones.

Also, the pure white background completely neutralizes the actor’s features and expressions, allowing them to adapt new ones through the use of kumadori.


Kumadori is another element of Kabuki makeup, especially in aragato Kabuki, a bold, flamboyant type of the style. Kumadori is done in bright, vivid stripes of patterns, accentuating facial features and establishing the character traits of the role a Kabuki actor is playing. Different placement, patterns, and even colors denote different things about the character:

Red is used to represent a hero character, one with power and strength. Red symbolizes virtue and power on the Kabuki hanamachi, or stage.

A Kabuki villain will often wear an easily recognizable black beard with angry, prominent blue eyebrows and purple or blue veins.

Blue kumadori represents a character from the spiritual or ghost world, while gray or brown can represent animals or demons.

At the end of a performance, an oshiguma is sometimes made: the impression of the actor’s kumadori on a piece of silk cloth, either as a personal memento or autographed as a gift to the Kabuki connoisseur.

A Kabuki Makeup How-To

You don’t have to travel all the way to Japan to see Kabuki, or Kabuki makeup–though that would be unforgettable, no doubt! Applying Kabuki makeup yourself is easily done, either for fun or because you are a budding Kabuki actor yourself. In this tutorial we will focus on the kumadori of the hero from the famous Kabuki play Shibaraku.


  • Oshiroi or white crème makeup.
  • Black crème makeup
  • Red crème makeup
  • Large sponge or Kabuki brush
  • Smaller brush for kumadori detail
  • Finishing spray or setting powder

Apply the Oshiroi 

Oshiroi is rarely made of pure rice powder anymore, but if you can find it, stick with dedicated oshiroi kabuki makeup as opposed to cheap grease paint. It is smoother, and easier to blend, and less likely to contain chemicals that will hurt your skin.

  • Pull your hair back and out of your face, securing with a hair tie or band.
  • Brush or sponge the oshiroi all the way up to your hairline and down to your neck.
  • Make sure that you cover your lips, eyebrows, and eyelids. The idea is to give yourself a completely blank canvas to start with.
  • Make sure that the oshiroi is flat, smooth and not streaky, using the brush or sponge to even it out if necessary.
  • Use the spray or powder to set the oshiroi before moving on to the next step.

Apply the Kumadori 

  • With the red crème kumadori makeup and small brush, draw a curved line that extends from the inner corner one eyes to a point on your hairline between the middle (widow’s peak) and temple.
  • Make an identical line from the inner corner of your other eye.
  • Next, make a small curved line that dips slightly downward from the inner corner of one eyebrow to the other.
  • Outline your nose next, still using the red, making sure that you exaggerate the flare of your nostrils and add a small dipped line over the bridge of your nose.
  • Take the brush and starting below your eye in the inner corner, line the eye, and draw two branches that will look like a semi-circle. The upper branch should between the first red line and your temple. The second should end at your temple.
  • From the outer edges of your nostrils, bring another line of the kumadori Kabuki makeup so that it outlines the lower edge of the apple of your cheek and ends at the hinge of your jaw.
  • Did you know that the little groove that runs from the septum of your nose to your upper lip has a name? It is the philtrum. Redden it with the red crème makeup
  • Finally, create a cleft in your chin with the red kumadori, and continue the line across your jaw on both sides, stopping halfway between your chin and end of your jaw. Use a little red crème makeup to outline a wide, masculine line at the upper ridge of your top lip, bringing the line all the way past the corners of your mouth.
  • At this point, you will need to blend the curved kumadori lines every where except at your eye, jaw, and lip line. In many ways, this dramatic look shares some techniques with high-fashion cosmetic techniques, so feel free to take a page from a makeup artist’s book.
  • Finally, finishing touches with black kumadori, so using the black crème makeup and a clean brush, draw thick, upward curving antler-like eyebrows that extend almost up to your hairline, drawing over the red kumadori where necessary.
  • Line just the lower lid of your eye, creating wings that flare up at the outermost corner.
  • Lastly, lowlight the red lip line with just a few touches of the black crème makeup.
  • Set your Kesho–Kabuki makeup–with the finishing spray or powder so that it doesn’t smudge.

This is a very basic Kabuki makeup tutorial, and it is worth noting that Kesho is considered ceremonial for the Kabuki actor–there is still so much that you can learn about this cultural treasure. Learning a little Japanese will go a long way in understanding the rich nuances of Kabuki and Kabuki makeup, and adding this skill to your bag of tricks will be a boon to you if you decide to pursue a career in makeup application for the stage and screen. 


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