Thursday, 16 February 2012

Yakusha-e: Kabuki prints, a continuing tradition

Yesterday was Excursion Day; Escape From Routine Day, Change of Scene Day, New Input Day. Target destination: the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford to see an exhibition of Japanese prints, wander the antiquity-filled halls and partake of coffee and cake in the café (very good cake it was too).

The exhibition, Yakusha-e: Kabuki prints, a continuing tradition, shows images of Kabuki actors over the centuries . The prints were made by three Japanese artists – Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1864), Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) and Tsuruya Kokei (born 1946).

Kabuki theatre began in the early 1600s. The actors became celebrities, much like film stars today, and attracted a huge fan base. There was a high demand for images of the actors which kept the artists busy providing drawings to be made into prints. The drawings would be passed on to engravers who would carve the blocks. These in turn would be handed over to printers for printing. These prints (and those with other subject matter such as landscape and historical images) were known as Ukiyo-e; pictures of the floating world.

A subset of Ukiyo-e, Yakusha-e depict actors striking dramatic poses - ‘mie’. Traditionally these were full-length figures with minimal backgrounds but from the 1790s, artists began to vary the designs to half-length portraits and dramatically cropped views of head and shoulders – Okubi-e. This had the effect of bringing ardent fans closer to their favourite stars (or at least, giving them that feeling), and facial features and expressions could be emphasised. Bright red makeup was used to heighten emotion – I particularly like the images where the subject is cross-eyed; this indicated a moment of emotional climax. They look rather comical but presumably it was all deadly serious. Motifs on the costumes often depicted the content of the play.

I like ukyio-e; but to my untrained eye, they've always looked a bit samey to me. However, seeing the work of Kunisada and Kunichika side by side, the differences in style are quite evident. Kokei’s work is different again and has a more modern, graphic feel to it, and in fact, he carries out all stages of the process himself from drawing to printing - unlike the customary methods followed by Kunisada and Kunichika. He shows though that this 400 year old tradition is still very much continuing. An interesting exhibition should you be in the vicinity before 4 March.

Images from top to bottom:

Cross-eyed villain, Toyohara Kunichika, 1869, 35.5 x 24cm

Actor as Yura Hyogo holding a fan, Utagawa Kunisada, 1852, 35.5 x 24.3cm

Nakamura Tojuro as Kasane, Tsuruya Kokei

Masaoka, Tsuruya Kokei

The Actor Ichikawa Danjuro XII as Sasaki Takatsuna in The Chronicle of Three Generations in Kamakura, Tsuruya Kokei


  1. Oddly enough I came across the phrase "floating world" in a completely different context today in "Salem Chapel":

    "Sunday night! once more the church-bells, the church-going groups, the floating world, which he had many a time upbraided from the pulpit, seeking its pleasure."

    Hooray for EDays, EfRs, CoSDs and NIDs! Need one next month too.

  2. Erfs and Nids. Sound like creatures from Tolkein or some such.

  3. The vaults of the Ashmole would be a good place for them.

  4. Wow. Excellent post and images as well, I love this theater and just collect my Kabuki Theater dance dress from at PIJ. Now I decide to visit kabuki theater in this month. Thanks for your great effort and nice work.