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Saturday, March 25, 2000

The masters of kabuki coiffure

Staff writer

One of the joys of watching kabuki for most lovers of the art lies in the visual presentation of the costumes and katsura (wigs) of the performers. Katsura are almost equal in importance to the costumes themselves, and tremendous attention is paid to the details of this finely crafted prop; from its perfect fit around the forehead to the final styling and decoration of the beautiful mane of hair.

The making of this unique wig starts with the cutting of a copper sheet to fit the head of the actor it is being made for, which is then rounded into a three-dimensional shape. Next, washi (handmade Japanese paper) from Shinshu or Kyoto (areas renowned for the strength of the paper they produce), is pasted on top of the head-shaped copper shell. Then, habutae silk is attached to the washi with a strong glue called shiratama. Real hair (the majority of which comes from China) is then stitched strand by strand into the front layer of the habutae by hand. This part is most time-consuming and takes an entire day to complete. The last step is to comb the hair very carefully before sending it to a tokoyama (wig stylist), where it is coiffed into a style.

"Everything depends on being able to create a good forehead line," says Koji Miyazaki, 56, a katsura artisan with 40 years experience. Since the curve of the forehead is made differently for each character, just a slight adjustment to the shape can make the actor look beautiful for female roles or strong for male roles, he says.

Miyazaki is the president of Tokyo Engeki Katsura, the only company in the Kanto area making katsura for kabuki. Seventy to 80 percent of the store's wigs are made for kabuki, while the rest are made for nihon buyo (Japanese dancing) or Shinpa plays.

Tokyo Engeki Katsura is contracted by kabuki producers to create wigs for every character in each Kabukiza production. Before a new show opens every month, a tsukecho, or notebook that lists props, costumes and wigs for each scene in a performance, is sent to the katsura makers. Taking stock of what will be needed for the upcoming production, the katsura makers set to work making wigs for every actor in the play.

Once the katsura are completed, the artisans go out to the Kabukiza to fit the actors with the wigs. Minor changes are made during rehearsals so that each wig fits perfectly by the time the curtain goes up on the first day of the performance.

"I might not have gone into this business at all if I had been healthy," says Miyazaki. Suffering from ill health and a physical disability, Miyazaki followed his parents' advice to pursue an artisan's life which would allow him to work seated and indoors. "I wasn't particularly interested in it at first, but as time passed I got more and more into what I was doing."

There is no textbook on making katsura, and most of the techniques are handed down through tradition. The amount of hair needed to get the right amount of volume in a katsura isn't written down anywhere; one can only tell through experience.

Miyazaki says that katsura making is learned through careful observation and apprenticeship. "To learn the craft quickly it helps to have a real interest in it," he says.

At Tokyo Kamochi Tokoyama, Masatoshi Nasu puts oil on the Tokyo Engeki Katsura wigs. He ties knots in the hair to create a beautiful hairdo, and finishes off his work by decorating the wig with hair accessories appropriate for the role in which the katsura will be used. With just one stroke of a hand or a comb, Nasu claims he can give the tied hair just the right curved shape -- even when styling the most complicated and striking hairdos of the Genroku Era (1688-1703).

According to Yukio Hasegawa, an experienced artisan at Tokyo Engeki Katsura, the completed wigs are the result of the joint effort of all three parties involved, who continuously consult each other during the process: the katsura artisan, the tokoyama and the kabuki actor.

Although many traditional crafts in Japan are on the verge of dying out, katsura-making will live on as long as kabuki has an audience.

Tokyo Engeki Katsura is at 3-4 Nihonbashi-Tomizawacho, Chuo-ku, Tokyo. For more information, call (03) 5640-0271 or fax (03) 5640-0273.

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