Edo Theater: The Drama of Kabuki
Exhibition Type: in-house
Kabuki theater thrived in Edo-period (1603-1867) Japan. It had all of the necessary elements for successful and popular stage performance: dramatic narrative, music, vocals, and dance. Its subject matter often consisted of historical narratives, revenge plays, and plots borrowed from the repertory of Nō and the puppet theater.
According to tradition, the form originated in early 17th-century Kyoto with performances by a female dancer associated with the Izumo Shrine. The first government edicts regulating kabuki were issued in 1629, when female performers, many of whom had resorted to prostitution, were banned for moral reasons. The same injunction was issued against young male performers in 1652, and from 1653 on, all kabuki troupes consisted only of male performers. Female roles came to be played by female impersonators (onnagata), and by the early 18th century, kabuki had become an intimate part of the world of entertainment and pleasure so closely identified with “the floating world” (ukiyo). Patrons included members of all levels of society, and despite periodic government censure, this theatrical form retained its enormous popularity.
Focusing on the acting conventions of kabuki theater - elaborate costumes and facial make-up, dramatic acting, and exaggerated body language - these prints convey some of the excitement and pleasure that kabuki theatergoers experience to this day. Such works served as advertisements and as records of performances, as well as providing insight into the hidden world of the theater. Many of the prints in this exhibition are portraits of specific actors, while others depict the theater and the theater district. One group focuses on the Ichikawa lineage of Danjūrō actors, who were famed for their bravura roles. This reputation derived from the classic shibaraku role, in which the protagonist yells “Wait a moment!” (“Shibaraku!”) and proceeds to resolve the action of the play by killing the evildoers. First written by Danjūrō I (1660-1704) in about 1697, versions of this performance became an integral part of the Danjūrō-lineage repertory. Idolization of actors and patronage by fans, as well as the cultivation of the audience through modified repetition of familiar narratives, all point to the strength and enduring popularity of this highly entertaining theatrical tradition. Savor these prints as an introduction to the enjoyment of kabuki theater.