Hair tangled up with performing arts

A dancer’s ensemble wouldn’t be complete without a proper hairstyle. The most accurate and suitable hairstyle for wearing a kimono on stage is a complicated nihongami. However, it is not made of the performer’s real hair. Even long time before the modern era, artists used handmade wigs (katsura). For actors and dancers, wigs were (and still are) an essential part of the stage costume, as certain hairstyles enhance and express the specific roles.

A Japanese stage wig accessorized with gold-plated-and-coral kanzashi

“Nothing special, they just wear wigs!”—I’ve heard it a lot of times. But wearing a wig is not a sign of the artist’s laziness. In fact, it is a sign of paying respects to the traditional craft that is delivered in its finest form since the 1700s. A handcrafted wig, styled in the Japanese manner, is a sophisticated work of art. Madly expensive and made-to-order. While kabuki actors usually come from admired and noble families, some nihonbuyo dancers are not able to afford a decent katsura. In this case, they need to stick with modest and elegant coiffures styled with their own hair. In the world of art wigs are not a neglect, they are a luxurious commodity.

A katsura in courtesy of Hana Umeda

A tokoyama (床山) is a craftsman specialized in Japanese stage wigs. It is also a common word for the wigmaker’s workshop. As tradition indicates, all apprentices of tokoyama used to live in one big house together. It was not only their day work atelier and a wig store but also a kind of a boarding school. The whole building had a huge shelf in the central part—where all of the wigs stood. One of the students’ everyday tasks was brushing off the dust from the counter. Even though there was no actual need to dust it off, the master of tokoyama had a much different intention for the students than just keeping the whole place incredibly neat. The reason behind this task was quite simple—during each cleaning session, novices had to touch each katsura, hold it, and lift. It was just the easiest and most straightforward way for the students to learn about wigs’ shape, weight, and other physical features.

Tying the katsura ropes must be done in a proper way

The very last weekend of October blew me into my nihonbuyo teacher’s (and a dear friend at the same time) house, located in Old Żoliborz district of Warsaw. A strong and destructive storm was slowly seizing the whole city as I entered her vintage mansion and greeted two biscuit-colored dogs. It was such a perfect evening for chilling inside, storytelling, and discovering her splendid kimono collection.

Stage kimono pieces (pictured here: uchikake) and a wisteria folding fan that belong to Hana Umeda

Hana is a daughter of Yoshiho Umeda and a granddaughter of Ryouchu Umeda. Both of them were extremely contributive to Japanese-Polish cooperation in such aspects as culture, politics, language, history, and art. Keeping their heritage alive, Hana is also actively engaged in all of these spheres. In addition, she is also a passionate nihonbuyo and jiutamai dancer and teacher. Her talent was spotted a few years ago by the jiutamai headmaster of Hanasaki-ryu school of dance in Tokyo.

Folding fans of Hana Umeda

Hana gracefully led me into our usual rehearsal room, full of old books and nihonbuyo props. It was Yoshiho’s office before—he used to sit in front of the wooden desk facing the window with a picturesque view onto the garden. Today the whole floor was covered with precious kimono and ultra-colorful dancing fans. It was just a small piece of Hana’s collection, though she looked at me with her bright eyes and gasped suddenly. “Oh, I almost totally forgot about the most important thing!”—she murmured. A few seconds later, large and heavy case appeared in the left corner of the room.

Hana’s name written in kanji on the katsura’s case

immediately recognized a distinctive box for storing the katsura. Although its shape is not practical at all, Hana claimed that she brought it to Poland as her hand luggage. She saw a surprised expression on my face and, at the same time, I couldn’t help myself but giggle—“I swear, the airport staff was super friendly to me when they saw such treasure in my luggage!”.

The katsura was a sincere gift from a wig craftsman, Toshikazu, of the finest tokoyama—Kamoji. He is, at the same time, Hana’s uncle. His tokoyama, since the Edo period, delivers custom-made wigs for kabuki actors and, especially, for the Ichikawa Danjuro line. Their cooperation with Danjuro is outstanding—Toshikazu’s ancestors received “Horikoshi” surname from Ichikawa Danjuro IX during the Meiji restoration. Back then, it was a symbol of the highest gratitude. Horikoshi Tokoyama transformed into Kamoji after Toshikazu’s father, Torao Kamoji, was designated as an heir of the business.

This close partnership with the Ichikawa clan is continued even now—Naofumi Umeda (who is also Hana’s uncle) was a personal wigmaker of Ichikawa Danjuro XII up until the actor’s death in 2013. He also creates unique katsura for one of the most famous kabuki actors of our times, Ebizo Ichikawa. The other kabuki superstar, Bando Tamasaburo V, is tied with the Osawa Tokoyama—as they’re specialized mainly in feminine wigs for onnagata actors.

It’s always obvious who exactly is an author of a particular katsura. Therefore, there’s no need to put any artist’s labels or signatures on the katsura’s case—the craft speaks for itself. For example, Toshikazu Kamoji created a supreme look for Hana with dainty and tender details, like pronged base and flirty hair strands in front of the wig.

The triple-pronged base of the wig

The process of building a katsura starts with a solid metal base. This frame is hidden inside the wig and has to be perfectly fitted to the user’s head and hair. Otherwise, the katsura would look just sloppy when worn. What is more, if the wearer decides to grow their hair longer than usual, the metal frame needs to be adjusted. Even two or five centimeters make a huge difference.

All wigs from Kamoji Tokoyama are made of real human hair. The hair pieces need to be long enough and have a proper color—as katsura is never dyed nor bleached. Usually, wigs for dancers are dark brown (the final shade is explicitly chosen to match the real hair and skin of the wearer), while katsura for kabuki actors are jet black mostly. The hair strands are brushed precisely first and get styled in a sophisticated hairstyle of choice. The most popular one is taka shimada, worn by dancers, onnagata, and geisha.

As katsura is made of human hair, there are special procedures to maintain it in good shape and condition. The most important one is gently brushing the hair with animal-fat-based wax. This oily substance comes in two forms—liquid and solid. Tokoyama buys raw bars of solid wax and later experiments with their firmness by melting and mixing the wax.

To put the katsura on, the wearer has to secure their head with a sheer cap (habutai). It’s stuck onto the skin with a paper tape and allows to hide the real hair inside the wig’s frame. This cap also functions as a protective shield against a thick white makeup that is usually worn by actors and dancers on stage.

A small piece of mesh (ami) is attached in front the wig. This delicate net is a base for particular hair bristles which are planted into the ami like tiny flowers. Ami can be easily fractured, and then the whole katsura cannot be used any longer. Thus, it is critical to take care of this fragile part of the wig. A small piece of plastic foil is always helpful to protect the mesh while putting the wig on; newly-debuted geisha use this trick for the first few days.

Bira-bira kanzashi made of silver and coral

I took the last glance of the precious katsura hiding behind a gauzy veil—Hana’s uncle cares about her so much that he didn’t let her leave the wig miserably undressed. Silver-and-coral accessories were shining brightly in dim light, and I could hear a fluttering sound of the bira-bira kanzashi. As katsura slowly drifted away into the heavy casket-like box, I recalled in my mind a vivid memory of Hana performing with the white makeup, fabulous kimono, and the katsura on. She was the most exquisite butterfly that put the whole audience under a charm.

Hana Umeda
Kamoji Tokoyama

One Reply to “Hair tangled up with performing arts”

  1. Omg this was such a lovely read! your words are so passionate!! I was amazed her uncle was the wig maker for such a famous kabuki family!! Thanks for the write up! cant wait for more!!

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