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Goin’ Japanesque!

Strike a Pose, Kabuki-Style: The Meanings of “Mie”

Though we’re sure you’ve heard of kabuki, a Japanese style of theater famous worldwide, how much do you know about the meanings behind the various performance techniques that form it? Let’s delve a little deeper into kabuki today and examine the theatrical poses known as “mie.” We’ll conclude with a few phrases we hope you’ll find helpful, ones that have their origin with kabuki mie even as they are still used in everyday conversation today. Ref: Photo


What is a Kabuki Mie?



During a highlight moment of a kabuki play, an actor will strike and hold a pose while making dramatic gestures that might include craning their neck or crossing their eyes. This postural movement, called a “mie”, introduces a new class of beauty on stage, impressing the actor and the scene upon the audience. Also, a mie is generally accompanied by a concurrent sound effect called a “tsuke”, which further adds to the depth of the effect. In the lingo of kabuki, this ensemble action is called “mie o kiru” (literally, “to cut a mie.”)

The mie in kabuki has a similar role to techniques like close-ups and stop motion in modern film. It adds a dramatic flair to the production and gets the audience on the edge of their seats. The development of kabuki predates advanced stage lighting, and mie are an example of how the Japanese of old cleverly created ways to bring theatrical changes to the stage.


The Face during Kabuki Mie

If you turn to focus on the actor’s face alone when a mie is cut, you’ll notice their crossed eyes as well as the intensity of their glare. Thanks to practice from an early age, there are talented actors who have acquired the ability to cross only the one eye, a technique that leaves a potent impression on the audience. (Look at the eyes of the actor depicted in the ukiyo-e painting below. You’ll notice that only one eye is crossed, evidence that this technique has been in use since ancient times.)


Nirami, a Special Mie Technique

「天日坊法策 市川小団次 米升」歌川国貞(三代豊国),

The Japanese word for “glare” is “nirami,” and though a well-executed glare is an integral part of a kabuki mie, there is another, more limited way the word is used. Use of this special nirami is permitted to only one lineage in the Ichikawa clan (Naritaya), and it is not for performances but instead is used during rituals and special occasions. Those who receive this “nirami” glare are said to be purged of wickedness and protected from evil influence.


How “Mie” is Used in Conversation

Two phrases in modern Japanese, “mie o kiru” and “mie o haru”, derive from the mie of kabuki.

  • Mie o kiru (“to cut a pose”): to place emphasis on things in a cocksure and overblown way, e.g. with extravagant words and gestures.
  • Mie o haru (“to pull a pose”): to show off excessively for appearance’s sake.


When watching kabuki during your Japanese travels, pay special attention to the poses of the actors to bring a new depth to your appreciation of this art form. After the show, be sure to surprise your companions with the two “mie”-related phrases you learned today, too!

Related: Kumadori: The Three Colors To Know To Better Enjoy Kabuki

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