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"They Just Want to Look in the Mirror"

One of the main reasons that William T. Vollmann’s writing is so expertly detailed and rich is because he is a master of both old-fashioned, shoe-leather research and the deskbound library variety.

Vollmann as a woman.

One of the main reasons that William T. Vollmann’s writing is so expertly detailed and rich is because he is a master of both old-fashioned, shoe-leather research and the deskbound library variety. His hugely varied interests have led him to the North Magnetic Pole, war-torn Yugoslavia and Iraq, Afghanistan in the early 80s (where he was embedded with the mujahideen), through the hooker-filled Tenderloin district of San Francisco, aboard freight trains with hobos and tramps, and more. Vollmann has a genuine fascination with his subjects and locales, and his true greatness lies in his ability to repeatedly distill his obsession of the moment into a damn good read.


After 20 years of plugging away, Vollmann’s singular talent was officially canonized when his 2005 novel

Europe Central

received the National Book Award for fiction.


was lucky enough to publish an original short story by Vollmann in our 2007 Fiction Issue, and we now present to you an excerpt from his latest nonfiction book,

Kissing the Mask: Beauty, Understatement, and Femininity in Japanese Noh Theater

. As its title suggests, it is a sociological exploration of the strange, veiled world of Noh and its practitioners. The book is filled with transvestites, geishas, sex fiends of the red-light Kabukichō district, and many other interesting characters both elegant and perverted. It also marks the first time that we have read the word “neovagina.”

In the following excerpt (from chapter 16, “They Just Want to Look in the Mirror”), the author is made over by a makeup artist whose clientele includes a large number of cross-dressing Japanese businessmen. We think that Vollmann looks very becoming as a woman.

Yukiko’s salon is unmarked, naturally, and there is a discreet second-floor entrance. The street is quiet, at least for Tokyo; her clients must feel safe. The room is by my standards smallish—about the size of the chamber where Suzuka-san’s colleague geisha Kasami-san danced for me. While Yukiko makes tea, I go into the tiny lavatory to change into my new black dress.

Laying out three disks of foundation, Yukiko, who is 30ish and very pretty, with long brown hair, shows me the corresponding pictures in the Japanese fashion magazines: One foundation looks best photographed and printed onto glossy paper; one is more appropriate to going out on the street; and the third is intermediate. I choose the second.


Gandhi advises us to do what we do without expecting results; and I entertain decidedly minuscule hopes of achieving maiko-esque beauty, especially since although I carefully shaved in my hotel less than two hours before, Yukiko sweetly, reproachfully inquires whether I have shaved.

She begins with a cream-type astringent: Clarins Lotion Tonique.* The base cream will be Diorskin 001

base de teint

, which contains a hint of pearl, making it a trifle shiny. The purpose is to even the skin. One adds less of it in summer, more “where it needs it more.” Yukiko begins with the Diorskin by dabbing with her forefinger a spot on my forehead, an upper and lower spot on each cheek, and a spot between my mouth and my chin. On the forehead she works the stuff horizontally, elsewhere vertically. Then she addresses the zone beneath each eye, proceeding in descending arcs from the center of the underlid out to the cheek, her touch so firm that my flesh moves. Next she rubs it on the eyelids. All the while, I must keep my eyes open.

Now it is time for the number three cream foundation. Formerly, she says, Japanese women used to lighten their faces with foundation, but at the moment they prefer to slightly darken them, making them appear smaller. Firmly patting with the sponge (she always employs a new sponge for every step), smoothing around my eyes, she instructs me to look up while staying still. After two hours my skin oil will reappear, she says. She mentions a special paper from Kyoto which can absorb it (an easy procedure: Simply pat and adjust); all the same, I am reminded how limited and ephemeral this is; and for a moment I nearly begin to comprehend the sacrificial hours paid by women at their mirrors and in beauty parlors and department stores and manicure-pedicure studios. Suzuka’s nightly effort is, as we have seen, significant—not to mention the long preparations of Mr. Umewaka in the mirror room before his Noh performances. And all of it must be done over again next time.


“You see,” says Yukiko, lightly touching my chin, “even now it is starting to show. Since your beard is not black it should be OK for a couple of hours.” As a result of such transience, her customers generally do no more than remain here with her, for about three hours. After a chat and tea, they return home to their families.

Next comes the concealer, in order to render the contour of my new age spot more vague. It is a stick cream, Anti-Cervier, Yves Saint-Laurent product number 41911-1. Yukiko also applies it to my wrinkles, and especially to the wedge of skin below and outside of each eye, using two fingers, always going up, not down, since we don’t want to show the sagging of my face.

In general, runs her diagnosis, my poor male flesh is afflicted with many red spots; her goal is to render it a uniform color. She works for quite a while on the creases between the two wings of my nose and on the corners of my mouth. With special care she rubs concealer over the age-downturned corners of my lips.

“How old can a man become and still resemble a woman?”

“After age 60 it is quite difficult.”

Following the concealer comes the powdery foundation (a white substance, Anna Sui Face Powder 700), rubbed in, first on the wrinkles around my eyes. First touching me with her brush, then rubbing with a finger, always upward, in firm strokes that move flesh, beneath each eye she creates a downpointed right triangle whose inner side parallels my nose. Yukiko can render this undercoat (the equivalent of gesso on an oil painting) either glossy for a “cute” look or else more natural so that the client appears “classical.” Suspecting that cuteness lies beyond my power, I have elected for the classical look.


I ask Yukiko how I could best approximate all this at home, and she advises me to buy a magnifying mirror.

Now for an eye shadow, which she smears gently in, selecting here and there from many different looks in the palettes, where it resembles vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry ice cream. “When you get older it gets darker under the eye, particularly for Japanese,” she informs me tactfully. “Then the eye shadow will not appear nice.” This amelioration likewise lasts for about two hours. Using a special brush, she makes seven round trips across each eyelid “like a windshield wiper.” Where the brush first touches, there it will be thickest; those round trips smooth it out. Then she proceeds upward, afterward rubbing up and down with her finger in order to blur the contours.

She warns me to avoid allowing any eye shadow to fall on my cheek, since it cannot easily be removed.

Again, the goal seems to be making the facial skin more uniform, disguising lines and color changes. If so, then the white mask-face of the geisha, or the literal mask-face of the Noh beauty, are simply farther along the continuum.

* It is not my normal practice to include brand names in my books. However, since the makeup procedures of geishas and onnagatas are described in some detail, I thought to achieve a comparable level of specificity. Moreover, since my interpreter rarely deployed makeup herself, it is possible that some unguental functions have been misunderstood in this chapter; if so, the brand names may reveal whichever errors I have made.


From the book KISSING THE MASK: Beauty, Understatement

and Femininity in Japanese Noh Theater by William T. Vollmann.

Copyright © 2010 by William T. Vollmann.

To be published on April 6, 2010 by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.