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Yakusha-e Kabuki Prints: A Continuing Tradition
by administrator,
Wednesday, February 29, 2012 - 17:12


THE ASHMOLEAN’S SPECIAL display in the Eastern Art Paintings gallery is a collection of popular kabuki prints. Yakusha-e, literally ‘actor pictures’, have been sold to Kabuki enthusiasts since the Japanese Edo period (1603-1868). The most popular were woodblock prints in the ukiyo-e style, translated as ‘pictures of the floating world’. Kabuki, Japan’s popular dance-drama, was perhaps the brightest expression of this ‘floating world’, captivating audiences since the early 1600s. The woodblock prints would often depict the actors striking an intense pose, eyes crossed and limbs held rigid. This exhibition of actor prints from the Ashmolean’s collection includes traditional depictions of kabuki actors by late 19th-century artists Kunisada and Kunichika, and recently acquired works by contemporary printmaker Tsuruya Kōkei.

Edo Japan’s (1615-1868) extended peace and increasing prosperity saw a popular movement gather momentum from rural to urban areas. A chonin, or ‘townspeople’, culture surfaced in the cities, where the merchant class played a central role. As creditors to the government and other sectors, they were condemned to the lowest strata in the Confucian social order. But merchants were a new source of affluence. It enabled them to seek earthly, if temporary, diversions in the pleasure quarters of the growing cities of Edo Japan. Patrons of courtesans, actors and artists, they were part of a new phenomenon known as ukiyo, the ‘floating world’, a term derived from the novel, Ukiyo Monogatari (Tales of the Floating World) of 1661 by Asai Ryoi. Ukiyo nurtured a new urban art form as a taste for genre paintings, woodblock prints, illustrated books and calendars accompanied the demand for popular literature. The images depicted on them were called ukiyo-e, ‘pictures of the floating world’. At the same time, continued public hunger for relatively inexpensive prints fuelled an emerging print medium, which sustained a notable Japanese publishing industry by the 18th century.

Kabuki theatre was one of the most dynamic art forms to emerge from Japan’s ‘floating world’, the extraordinary pleasure districts that thrived in major Japanese cities during the 18th and 19th centuries. With dramatic storylines, lavish costumes and celebrity actors, kabuki was the ideal subject for Japanese print designers. In an age of limited popular entertainment, the actors of the floating world aroused enormous interest. Portraits of them in full costume on stage, were widely circulated. Intimidating kabuki male roles called aragoto, exerting a sinister presence in the Edo-style, had a particular pull. The theatre was an all male preserve, and ‘female impersonators’, known as onnagata, were employed to play out highly stylised feminine roles.

There were three principal forms of theatre in Japan before kabuki: the courtly bugaku dances, which, of course, were seen by very few and largely unknown to the general population; Noh, which was founded and perfected during the 14th century by Kanami and Zeami and then adopted by the ningyo joruri puppet theatre, which was patronised by the peasants and urban inhabitants and which developed into the bunraku puppet theatre we know today.

The first recorded performance of kabuki occurred in 1603, given by a group of female entertainers. It is highly probably that dancing troupes were in operation before this date, and the 1604 performances featured a miko, a ‘shrine maiden’, who may have come from a shamanist background. All we know of her is that she was called Okuni, and is said to have come from the great shrine of Izumo.

She and her troupe gave their performances on the dried-up Kamogawa riverbed in Kyoto, on almost the exact spot of the present-day Minami-za theatre. Shamanist or not, it seems clear that Okuni was also concerned with the pleasures of this world, and it is generally accepted that she and her company were involved in prostitution. If we believe the illustrations depicting Okuni’s kabuki – all of which were produced well after her period of activity – her theatre seems to have been rather revue-like, with the women dancing in a circle. The dances appear to have been folk or quasi-religious, similar to the bon odori still performed all over Japan during the summer festival of the dead. Okuni’s theatre was extremely popular and was described as kabuku – an archaic term, unfamiliar to modern Japanese, meaning literally ‘tilted’, but implying that which is strange or outlandish, and perhaps somewhat risqué.

In 1629, however, the shogunate banned women from the stage. The reason for this is generally given as immorality – the prostitution having become more unacceptable. It seems, however, more likely this was simply a convenient excuse, and that the real reason behind the ban was the perceived threat the reputation of actresses presented to public order, on account of their popularity not simply with the commoners – who made up the majority of the audience – but also with the samurai class which, the government through, should be above such vulgar public display. Kabuki continued, however, to be performed by young boys who had yet to reach maturity and shave their heads in the universal samurai hairstyle of the day. This become the so-called wakashu kabuki ‘young boy kabuki’, and in 1652, by order of the shogunate, the boys suffered the same fate as the women and for exactly the same reasons. Surprisingly, kabuki performances were allowed to continue provided the actors were mature males – with shaven heads. This became known as yaro kabuki and, although the term is no longer used, developed into the kabuki we know today. The kabuki prints on show in this exhibition were collected by theatre-goers as souvenirs of performances and favourite stars – in the same way blockbuster film posters are collected today.

This exhibition has 20 woodblock prints showing traditional and contemporary examples of the genre from the Ashmolean’s collection of more than 2,000 Japanese prints. Visitors also have the chance to see, for the first time, the recent gift of works from Tsuruya Kokei. In his work, Kokei depicts moments from actual kabuki performances, and his portraits of modern-day kabuki actors, with their exaggerated facial features and hands, strongly evoke earlier yakusha-e. However, unlike the Japanese ukiyo-e artists of previous centuries, who merely provided publishers with drawings for block cutters and printers to work on, Kokei draws, carves, and prints his own designs.


Until 4 March, Yakusha-e Kabuki Prints: A Continuing Tradition is at the Ashmolean Museum, Beaumont Street, Oxford OX1 2PH, 


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