Scandal and Virtue: Staging Kabuki in Osaka Prints
Reviewed by Ed Voves
Original photography by Anne Lloyd
The word "Kabuki" refers to the hugely popular theater productions which flourished in Japan during the Edo period, 1615-1868. Kabuki plays continue to be highly regarded today, despite competition from films and television.
In contemporary Western usage, "Kabuki" has taken on an ironic meaning. People frequently use the word as synonym for political posturing and disingenuous election promises. Watch a presidential debate on television and it won't be long before the thought springs to mind or is ruefully uttered, "this is just kabuki."
The misappropriation of Kabuki is not just an instance of a word being "lost in translation." Rather, it is a fascinating case of how language and art change shape and appearance to fit the political and social circumstances of the times. In pre-modern Japan, Kabuki theater took on connotations and implied criticisms which the Shogun rulers of the nation looked on with disfavor - sometimes violently so.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art has been mounting a very fine exhibition of the woodblock prints created to celebrate Kabuki productions and performers during the Edo period. On view since April 2023, it has a couple of weeks left and is not to be missed.
Kabuki plays were lavishly mounted productions, incorporating music, mime, colorful costumes and extravagant make-up. Both drama and comedy were incorporated into the plays and the public responded with passionate "fan" acclaim.
The most attentive observation of Kabuki theater, however, came not from the enthusiastic audience but from government agents and censors. The ruling military elite of Japan, the Tokugawa shoguns, regarded Kabuki theater as a menace to the established political order. Kabuki plays might be tolerated but never ignored.
The Tokugawa shogunate also closely monitored the production of woodcut prints celebrating Kabuki plays and actors. The Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) has one of the greatest collections of Kabuki prints outside of Japan. In 2008, a major donation of 525 Kabuki prints was made by Jack Shear in honor of Anne D'Harnoncourt, the beloved PMA director who died that year. Many of these are on view in the present exhibition.
These spectacular color prints, also called Osaka prints, were created in the Kamigata region of Japan, which centers on the city of Osaka. The Tokugawa shoguns ruled from Edo (modern-day Tokyo) and were vigilant in preventing these theatrical pictures from being printed in the capital. It was impossible to stop the wide-spread circulation of these Osaka prints but that did not stop the warlords of Japan from trying.
Why the shoguns were so vigilant in regards to Kabuki theater can only be briefly sketched here. When the Samurai warlord, Tokugawa Ieyasua gained victory in the civil wars of the early 1600's, he closed the port cities of Japan to foreign ships - except for one Dutch vessel per year - and foreign ideas. A similarly repressive, though not quite so drastic, code of conduct was instituted for the domestic society in the "home islands" of Japan.
In Japanese, the word Kabuki denoted "unorthodox" or "unusual" behavior. If there is one absolute of militaristic regimes around the world it is their suspicion of anything smacking of nonconformity.
The seriousness - and severity - of the Tokugawa shogunate toward the Kabuki theater was notably displayed in a mid-19th century incident. This cause celebre involved Ichikawa Danjuro VII (1791-1859), one of the greatest Kabuki actors of all time.
A famous child actor in one of the leading theatrical families, Ichikawa Danjuro VII later specialized in playing epic hero roles. He helped to create the established repertoire of the eighteen greatest Kabuki plays or Kabuki Juhachiban. None of these achievements could save him from the fury of the Shogunate when he committed the major transgression of using real Samurai military gear and weapons (as opposed to stage props) in an 1842 play. He was arrested and exiled from the capital city of Edo. Furthermore, his mansion was destroyed as a warning to other actors.
There was no "kabuki" in the Shogun's policy toward the Kabuki theater.
Kabuki theater is a fascinating, if extremely complicated, subject (at least to uninitiated Americans like myself). One of the factors which makes it difficult to grasp the details of Kabuki history is the influence of acting dynasties. These played a dominant role, recycling the same or similar stage names for their members.
An example is the Arashi “family” of actors, each bearing “Arashi” as part of their stage names, which were handed down across the generations as an almost sacred inheritance.
The Arashi actors included blood relations and unrelated disciples. Periodically, they would change part of their stage name, the form depending on theatrical conventions. Arashi Kichisaburo II (1769-1821) was also known as Arashi Rikan. In March 1821, he changed his name to Arashi Kitsusaburo I.
How to keep the “cast” of Arashi actors straight? The hugely popular prints made in Osaka were just the ticket, especially since these prints were regarded as cherished collectables. Kabuki fans often bequeathed their prints to family members, much as acting families passed down stage names.
The above print shows Arashi Kichisaburo II (aka Kitsusaburo I) facing-off against his great acting rival, Nakamura Utaemon III. These two actors detested each other's acting style, with Arashi emphasizing realism in contrast to Utaemon's flashy technique. They refused to act together until their respective fan clubs arranged an elaborate dinner party in 1821. The two leading men agreed to share the stage in a joint production, but the long-anticipated event never occurred. Arashi Kitsusaburo I died suddenly in September 1821.
The manner in which the acting dynasties passed down their stage names - and, no doubt, acting tips - recalls the parallel lives of the Japanese landscape artists, the Kano school, which existed from the 1500's to the early twentieth century. Each painter was known by a variation of the Kano name, Kano Tan'yu (1602-1674), Kano Hogai (1828-1888), etc.
Japan, by holding the foreign world at bay through the Sakoku exclusion policy, created a very unusual social dynamic, of which Kabuki theater was part. But in one important respect, Kabuki reflected developments thousands of miles away in vastly different societies: namely in the narrowing sphere it gave to participation by women.
In the Western world, during the 1600's through the mid-1800's, the Scientific Revolution created many professional opportunities - for men. Women, during the Middle Ages had traditionally acted as healers and mid-wives. As science and medicine became more institutionalized, women were marginalized.
So too, in Kabuki. Incredibly, Kabuki theater was founded by a woman named Okuni early in the 1600's. Okuni was an attendant at the Shinto shrine at Izumo. She was most likely a dancer, hence her title as a miko, or shrine maiden.
Okuni soon demonstrated organizational, as well as acting, skill. She recruited a female acting troup whose performances were heavily laced with eroticism. These were a big hit with the Japanese populace, reeling from the endless Samurai wars, but not with the shoguns.
In 1629, in one of its early repressive measures, the Tokugawa shogunate banished women actors from the stage. This decree was proclaimed for the sake of "public morality". But this was kabuki in the modern sense, as the Tokugawa shogunate was the major sponsor of Yoshiwari, the "red-light" sex-trade center.
Introductory image: Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Onoe Tamizo II as Sasaki Takatasuna by Konishi Hirosada (1849) Color woodcut, center panel of triptych: 9 3/4 x 7 inches (24.8 x 17.8 cm) Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Detail of Osaka Woodcut Triptych Print by Konishi Hirosada (1851) Color woodcut triptych (left panel showing actors , Yamashita Kinsaku IV & Nakamura Daikichi I) 9 15/16 x 21 ½ inches (25.2 x 54.6 cm) Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Kabuki fan album showing Osaka Woodcut Prints of leading actors.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Detail of Nakamura Utaemon IV (right) as the farmer Yasuka; Mimasu Baisha I as Senzaki Yagoro (left) by Konishi Hirosada (1851) Color woodcut (overall) 9 ¾ x 21 inches (24.8 x 53.3 cm)
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Scene from a Kabuki Play by Utagawa Kunisada (1858). Color woodcut diptych: (each) 14 1/8 x 9 ¾ inches (35.9 x 24.8 cm) Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Ichikawa Danjuro VII as Chichbu Shoji Shigetada by Utagawa Kunisada (c. 1821). Color woodcut triptych (center panel): 14 15/16 x 10 1/8 inches (37.9 x 25.7 cm) Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Onoe Kikugoro III as the Ascetic Priest Nakasaina & Ichikawa Ebizo V as Nippon Daemon by Konishi Hirosada (1851). Color woodcut: 7 x 9 3/4 inches (17.8 x 24.8 cm) Philadelphia Museum of Art
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) A Kabuki actor of the Arashi dynasty, Arashi Kitsusaburo I (detail) by Saikotei Shibakuni (1821). Color woodcut: 14 9/16 x 10 ¼ inches (37 x 26 cm) Philadelphia Museum of Art
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Arashi Kichisaburo II and Nakamura Utaemon III by Shunkosai Hokushu (1820). Color woodcut: 15 9/16 x 10 inches (39.5 x 25.5 cm) Philadelphia Museum of Art
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Parody of Kurumbiki; Four Famous Beauties Enacting the Oxcart Scene by Kitagawa Utamaro (1793) Color woodcut: 13 x 16 7/8 inches (33 x 42.9 cm) Philadelphia Museum of Art
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Detail of Yamashita Kinsaku IV as Yasuke's Wife, Okayo by Konishi Hirosada (1851). For measurements see above: Nakamura Utaemon IV (right) as the farmer Yasuka and Mimasu Baisha I as Senzaki Yagoro. Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Fifth Month: Ichikawa Ebizo V as Takechi Mitsuhide by Konishi Hirosada (1848). Color woodcut: 9 3/4 x 7 inches (24.8 x 17.8 cm) Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Arashi Kichisaburo II as Yojiro, a Monkey Leader (Detail) by Urakusai Nagahide (1798). Stencil colored woodcut: 13 5/8 inches (34.7 x 14.9 cm) Philadelphia Museum of Art
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Nakamura Utaemon III as a Dancing Begger (Detail) by Asayama Ashikuni (1817). Color woodcut (part of sheet): 10 x 28 1/4 inches ( 25.4 x 71.8 cm) Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Jitsukawa Ensaburo as Sakuramaru by Konishi Hirosada (1851). Left panel of color woodcut triptych: 9 15/16 x 22 inches ( 25.2 x 55.9 cm) Philadelphia Museum of Art