Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 11, 2019
Dramatic Impressions: Japanese Actor Prints
Portland Art Museum, Oregon, March 30–October 13, 2019
Utagawa Kunisada as Toyokuni III, Actor Ichimura Kakitsu IV as Tenjiku Tokubei in a Battledore Portrait, 1862, color woodblock print on paper. Portland Art Museum, Oregon, Kathryn G. Rees Endowment, 2018.8.1 (artwork in the public domain; photograph provided by Portland Art Museum)

Dramatic Impressions: Japanese Actor Prints was a delightful exhibition of a wide variety of Japanese woodblock prints, many on view for the first time. The prints were organized chronologically for the most part, beginning with the eighteenth century and ending with the twentieth. The choices of the curator, Jeannie Kenmotsu (assistant curator of Japanese art with the Japan Foundation), were excellent for a showcasing of numerous famous woodblock-print artists and their actor prints (yakusha-e) from the Kabuki theater celebrity culture. Detailed museum labels provided information for the uninformed viewer as well as specifics for the knowledgeable audience, sometimes offering thought-provoking comparisons through time between pieces similar in either content or style.

Many of the artists included were easily recognizable if one has studied the genre of Japanese woodblock prints. One highlight of the show was a rare print by the enigmatic Tōshūsai Sharaku titled Onoe Matsusuke I as Matsushita Mikinoshin (1794). Featuring his characteristic mica background, it creates a glittering stage for tension-filled samurai in a revenge play. Specifics were noted on some labels, including this one, stating the date of the depicted performance in the Kiri Theater and the print’s publisher. Other well-known artists present in the exhibit included Ippitsusai Bunchō and Katsukawa Shunshō.

In addition, there were two prints (ca. 1740s) by artists from the Torii school: Torii Kiyonobu II and Torii Kiyomasu II. This importance of artistic lineages as part of the Kabuki visual culture was also seen with several prints from the Utagawa school, including several by Kunisada, Kuniyoshi, and Yoshiiku.

The show focused on diverse prints depicting numerous celebrity actors in various roles. Several portrayed stage actors from the famous Ichikawa Danjūrō Kabuki lineage, explained in the label as “successive heirs—biological or adopted, according to talent.” Bunchō and Shunshō showed Danjūrō V in unidentified roles and plays, while Katsukawa Shun’ei designed a portrait of him in a warrior role. The wonderfully expressive actor was shown with the distinct crest of the Danjūrō lineage on his costume (three concentric squares). Later, Danjūrō VIII was represented by two artists in the Utagawa school, Kunisada and Kuniyoshi. The one by the former artist was an exemplary print from 1832 showing the nine-year-old actor in his debut Kabuki performance of Shibaraku; the placard explained that this scene was used in many plays, in which the actor stops a “villainous plot with a loud shout, ‘Shibaraku!’ (Wait a minute!).” The artist used an interesting viewpoint, whereby the boy is seen from behind while the angles in the crest are highlighted throughout the image with repeated hard angles. Another example of the many interesting tidbits offered in the labels concerned a longtime Kabuki actor, Sawamura Tanosuke III, who had to have both legs amputated, and yet he continued to perform onstage in a cart with wheels, seen in the print by Utagawa Yoshiiku (1870).

Another point of interest was the wide variety of Kabuki plays and print series included in the show. Interestingly, two prints were from performances of a collection of one-act plays called Mastery of the Fan in Kabuki (Ayatsuri kabuki ōgi), explained as “celebrations of heroic commoners.” These prints from 1768 both showed a progression toward more individualistic portraits. Later in the exhibition, popular plays based on ghost stories were also represented, such as the large triptych by Toyohara Kunichika portraying the play The Ghost Story of the Moon at Kasamori (1865). In the dramatic print, the distressed female character, Osen’s sister, dressed in magnificent patterned robes, stands beside the murderous manservant with his sword ready to strike. The designer is known for his bolder use of colors, and this print was no exception.

The exhibition also encompassed key Kabuki roles and methods. The performers became celebrity icons through their poses and expressions in particular roles, ranging from villains and heroes to lovers, samurai, and comedians. The curator pointed out that since female actors were banned from Kabuki, the onnagata became a leading role (a male actor specializing in female characters). It was no surprise, therefore, that the show provided a few prints as examples, including two depicting the actor Yamashita Kinsaku II in an onnagata part. Another acting technique covered was aragoto or rough style, which includes forceful and dynamic movements and speech. This was evident in Shun’ei’s print of Danjūrō V (1780s) and Kunisada’s portrait of Danjūrō VIII (1832).

Building on the portrayal of artists, performers, and plays, the exhibition also covered the diverse techniques and formats of Japanese woodblock prints. For example, Shunshō’s pentaptych from circa 1770–77, comprising five single actor prints, was meant to be hung together so it looks like the subjects are together in a veranda, an effect visually created by a continuous hill and fence in the works’ backgrounds. Both Torii school prints in the show featured the benizuri-e technique, translated as “red-printed picture.” The artists added a tasteful, delicate use of red and green to the black, providing wonderful early examples of color woodblock prints, which dramatically changed to bright and bold colors as time progressed into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

An eye-catching piece was a rare example of an intact hagoita print by Utagawa Kunisada (1862). The format of the bold-colored portrait in the foreground was based on the shape of a small racquet used in the game of battledore, and features a feathered ball in the background and an attached racquet handle made from a different print. Another woodblock technique included was the ōkubi-e format, seen in numerous prints by Gosōtei Hirosada (also known as Konishi Hirosada). This large, close-up headshot style shows the designer’s interest in continued individualism as well as key Japanese woodblock aesthetics, such as a love of clashing patterns and cropped figures, seen in the 1850 print of Arashi Rikan III as Watōnai. In addition, the curator used two dramatic actor prints from 1852 to show how artists would appropriate designs, hairstyles, and expressions although depicting different actors and roles: one by Utagawa Kunisada as Toyokuni III, and the other by Utagawa Kunisada II.

One fascinating print of the amputee actor Sawamura Tanosuke III by Utagawa Yoshiiku, from the series Mirror of Photographs of Actors, is meant to look like a black-and-white photograph with hand-colored robes and scarf, a common photographic practice in the nineteenth century (done to compete with hand-painted portraits). Another exciting technique explored by the same artist was found in the series Portraits as True Likenesses in the Moonlight (1867). The two portraits each feature a large, black silhouette head in profile, as if it were a shadow created by the moon, with a small, colored three-quarter-view portrait in a roundel above it.

The exhibition ended with added bonuses found in glass showcases in the center of the gallery. One side featured Japanese prints from the twentieth century, such as portraits by Tsuruya Kōkei made during the 1980s. One portrayed Danjūrō XII on a mica background, a further demonstration of the famous and long-lasting Kabuki lineage. Kōkei was inspired by Sharaku’s ukiyo-e mica prints and thus revived the old genre of actor prints. (See Penelope Mason, History of Japanese Art, 2nd ed. [Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005], 386–87.) I especially appreciated seeing the continuity of iconic gestures, expressions, and styles with the earlier prints in the show. In addition, prints from the series Flowers of the Modern Stage by Ōta Masamitsu dating to 1954 were on display: according to the curator, “Some starring roles were new—newly written for film and stage, or adapted from Western drama—others were time-hallowed characters” from the Kabuki theater. Many publications on Japanese woodblock prints end with the nineteenth century, so it was a delight to see these modern-era portraits. Instead of the typical headshot or full-body image, these showed half of each actor’s body along with some Western illusionistic techniques, such as atmospheric perspective and chiaroscuro.

The other side of the glass cases featured several shini-e or death portraits. A unique memorial portrait by Toyohara Kunichika depicted Danjūrō IX in a frontal pose set within a roundel format from 1903. This label noted that such prints were avidly collected by theater fan culture; however, my one wish is that there had been more references to and discussions about the audience that helped to create these popular icons from the Kabuki stage, or how the works were disseminated. Several of the memorial portraits also included poetry or death poems, although they were not translated for the show. One surimono, or private commissioned memorial print, did not even contain a portrait; rather, it was filled with poetry set among Japanese florals.

Nonetheless, the exhibition offered a compelling view into the visual culture of the Kabuki theater. The quality and condition of the displayed works were also exceptional. It was curious, however, that the show did not contain a single reference to ukiyo-e (pictures celebrating the “floating world” or pleasure district), which was the key context for all such prints. Overall, the show was true to its name in its presentation of Japanese actor prints in all of their drama and glory, past and present.

Rebecca L. Twist
Associate Professor and Program Director of Art History, Department of Art, Pacific University