Re: Bijin prints - red and green lips

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Posted by John Fiorillo on May 18, 1999 at 23:24:55:

In Reply to: Bijin prints - red and green lips posted by Tamra Weaver on May 18, 1999 at 16:01:33:


‘Sasabeni’ ("bamboo red") was a mixture of red (‘beni’, from the safflower) and green from the bamboo (‘sasa’) plant. The green printed over a red can be found in many ukiyo-e prints, for example, on the lips of beauties to give a shimmering effect. It was also common on the lips of ‘onnagata’ in kabuki performances. Its purpose was to control and enhance the shape and gloss of the lips.

Interestingly, ‘beni’, which was also the basis for rouge to heighten the cheeks and eyelids, was considered best when prepared on the day of the ox (called ‘ushi’) during the coldest time in winter. On that day and a few days thereafter cosmetics shops were busy with young women buying the cosmetic. The rouge was applied by brush, whereas the ‘beni’ for the lips was more concentrated (called ‘kuchi-beni’) and applied with the middle finger (the technique was called ‘beni sashi yubi’).

It also appears that Japanese women, ever diligent in their quest for stylishness and beauty, wanted to partly hide their somewhat fleshy lower lips with the application of a face-whitening cosmetic base (‘oshiroi’, made variously over the centuries from powders, then from jalap seeds, then from mercury chloride and white lead imported first from China and then from Europe, then due to its toxicity replaced in the 1870s by a lead-free powder mixed with water called ‘neri oshiroi’). Women would next apply ‘beni’ over the ‘oshiroi’, thus making the lower lip appear smaller.

It may therefore be possible that the tradition of painting the lower lip green was also derived from this attempt to diminish the apparent size of the lower lip while enhancing the upper lip with red (red was considered emblematic of feminine beauty). I have also read that when ‘beni’ was applied in very strong concentrations is took on a green metallic lustre, but I cannot confirm this (it might very well be a confusion with the ‘sasa’ colorant).

The derivation of ‘sasabeni’ is unknown to me. Whether it originated among the aristocracy, the general populace, or the ‘onnagata’ in kabuki I do not know, but I suspect variations of it (that is, either green or even gold-colored cosmetics) might very well go back to the cosmetic habits of the ruling class during the Heian period. Perhaps a specialist in either cosmetics in Japan or the kabuki theater might know.


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