Kabuki, Wakashu, and Japan’s Influence On David Bowie

In gaming circles, there used to be a running joke that David Bowie was in every video game. His many looks showed up in games like Final Fantasy II, VII, VIII, IX, XI, XII, Kingdom Hearts, Resident Evil, and Xenosaga. Metal Gear Solid is packed with references to Bowie’s characters and music. One character was named Major Tom, as a cheeky nod to Space Odyssey. The fifth game of the series even starts with a cover of The Man Who Sold The World, and has the main character leading a private military unit known as the Diamond Dogs. Bowie’s aesthetics were also celebrated in anime, with the character, Kira from JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure — which is itself partly a celebration of the glam rock era — has a look that’s strikingly similar to the Thin White Duke character that Bowie began dawning.

One might see all this and make the assumption that David Bowie was tremendously influential as a style and expression icon in Japan. However, when more closely examining the inspiration behind Bowie’s outlandish and fabulous looks, one begins to make the connection that Japan inspired Bowie long before they reciprocated the love.

Ziggy really sang, screwed up eyes, and screwed down hairdo, like some cat from Japan

First and foremost, Ziggy Stardust, David Bowie’s alter ego is as Japanese as the rising sun. One might think that androgyny would be something that the conservative appearing Japanese culture would detest, however before the Meiji restoration Japan actually was less rigid about how gender was presented. They even had a word for it, wakashu, The Third Gender.

These were boys who were caught between the coming of age ceremonies of adolescence and adulthood. With their fuller heads of hair and daintier kimonos, they were an object of desire for men and women across Edo period Japan. In woodcut prints they were often depicted with their own androgyny juxtaposed with an actual female. This culture of male beauty has been in subconscious of Japan for quite some time. Even Tale Of The Genji featured a man so pretty that even the other guys preferred thinking of him as a girl.

One thing that these wakashu would do while their fleeting beauty was at its peak, was, like any pretty-boy, act. But the wakashu weren’t the drama kids belting the lyrics of Les Miserables down the halls of your school as you’re trying to take a test. Instead the wakashu donned the makeup, opened their fans, and struck a pose for kabuki theater.

The design of the Ziggy Stardust character with the stark red and white makeup is straight out of Kabuki, Japan’s esoteric brand of theater which employed the same colors and celebrated outlandishness, queerness, great music all through Edo era Japan, with many wakashu often being the ones to take female roles. Bowie’s character would not look the least bit out of place on stage with other kabuki actors. Like those performers, he attracted many intrigued viewers with his strange visuals, but kept them around because they knew the brand of strangeness they were laying witness to was the best in town.

That was something that Bowie needed in order to establish himself. Otherwise he was viewed as just a long haired British singer. Even when he did dawn a dress for his cover photo for The Man Who Sold The World or painted his face for Hunky Dory, he lacked a certain quality that strikes the viewer. Once he found a way to be more than just androgynous, to look extra terrestrial, Bowie became Bowie.

He owes this aesthetic to two people, Yasuko Hayashi, who gave Bowie the outfit he broke out in his Radio City Music Hall performance, and Kansai Yamamoto, who began designing the outfits, the hair and the makeup that would make Bowie into an icon of his own. They even employed the quick outfit changes which Kabuki helped pioneer. People witnessed a legitimate production when they saw Bowie during those years, an actual work of theater that couldn’t be replicated simply by listening to his albums.

Yamamoto with Bowie before his performance

The outfits became more complex and intricate, incorporating the wide pants that samurais and martial artists often wear, yakuza style patterns, and even a plethora of layers for the quick-change techniques. Bowie even got formal instruction on how to apply kabuki makeup.

And so, game respects game. As Japan became a part of his identity, he became a part of their expressionism. Even after he abandoned the Ziggy Stardust character, becoming the more professional Thin White Duke, he still managed to find that look showing up elsewhere, along with his classic Ziggy Stardust character.

In actuality, in fashion and most everything in life, very little of what we see is original, even the stuff that does look weird when we see it. It all ties back to something, and while some people might be disheartened by that, that they may never see something truly original, there’s something cool about it, makes humanity feel grounded, like we’re connected to those past generations. It’s where the word religion comes from in its etymological sense. While people are rightfully sensitive about cultural appropriation, inspiration is nothing to be ashamed about. Bowie was inspired by the Japanese and worked with Japanese designers to celebrated their traditions, culture, and fashion in a respectful manner, and the love was seen, appreciated, and reciprocated.

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