japonisme: enigmas of kabuki

28 February 2008

enigmas of kabuki

it should come as no surprise that the prints from the japanese closest in execution to the german and american poster designs we have been discussing are those of figures in show business. with their powerful simplicity, graphic purity, and eye-catching colors and outlines, these prints of actors (the up-on-young-girls'-walls posters of the edo era) accomplished just what the madalena ones did: they got your attention and they got remembered.

of course, these prints were all portraits of men. even when they are playing a princess their jaw-lines give them away. why is it all grown men?



Kabuki perform- ers during the earliest years of the genre were primarily women. Kabuki is thought to have originated in the dances and light theater first performed in Kyoto in 1603 by Okuni, a female attendant at the Izumo shrine. The word kabuki had connotations of the shocking, unorthodox, and fashionable, and it came to be applied to the performances of Okuni's popular troupe and its imitators. Because an important side business of the onna (women's) kabuki troupes was prostitution, the Tokugawa shogunate disapproved, banning the troupes in 1629 and making it illegal for women to appear on stage. Wakashu (young men's) kabuki then became popular, but in 1652 it was also banned because of the adverse effect on public morals of the prostitution activities of the adolescent male actors.

With both women and boys banned, kabuki became a thea- ter of mature male performers, although before yaro (men's) kabuki was permitted to continue performing, the government required that the actors avoid sensual displays and follow the more realistic conventions of the kyogen theater. 1

i could post a handful of images of these actors every day for years and not run out of images with exquisite lines, and bold prints and color. the costumes these men wore displayed design, art, and craftsmanship rarely seen even in the many many prints we have looked at up to now. and, in part, it is due to the powerful simplicity of the images. perhaps the most controversial ukiyo-e artist featuring actors was sharaku.

sharaku's work was considered quite controversial for the time. while all of the portraits are stylized (as are the ones they inspired in the west), his were considered to have "gone too far." they were the most "grotesque," the most extreme, and the most accurate. these actors were heros, and audiences felt sharaku did not honor them sufficiently. after only ten months and 140 prints, he disappeared.

in fact he may never have existed at all; his existence is still a matter of conjecture and specu- lation. it has been thought that "he" may have been a satirically-minded group of artists working together. a recent theory is that sharaku was actually hokusai, who himself disappeared from the art world for several years which just happened to coincide with sharaku's appearance. in any case, this was the 1700s, and sharaku is now, in retrospect, seen by many collectors as the world's first modern artist. 2

viewing these portraits you will quickly note the exaggerated poses and, even more evident, the crossed eyes! there is a reason for them:

crossed eyes demonstrate an emotional aspect of the kabuki actor’s repertoire on the stage. In kabuki there are what are called "mie" ("displays"), numerous types of expressive static poses taken at climactic moments in plays. Most if not all of the mie have unique names, and there are many. Some are quite dramatic, as in "aragoto" ("wild business") plays, which typically involve tales of bravado and heroism. In these plays, more closely associated with (but not exclusive to) the great Edo (old Tokyo) stage, the actor might, for example, snap his head abruptly into a static position, strike a glaring expression, and cross his eyes. 3 (often to wild applause)

and again a remin- der of what de- sign, fash- ion, advertising, art, looked like in the west only two years before trading began with japan. through enormous detail truth is easily obscured. through simplicity so much is revealed.

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3 Comments:

Blogger Princess Haiku said...

Wonderful post, Lotus. These posters do zing with clarity and movement. I had no idea that women were originally kabuki actors; thought it was always about men. Historically, one wonders about the influences that cause women to allow and willingly participate in their own exile.

28 February, 2008 22:46  
Blogger Princess Haiku said...

Lotus,
This beautiful and iconoclastic post has stopped me in my tracks. I have to ponder this, as it's impossible to make a superficial comment about it. It requires a reconciliation of opposites.....

28 February, 2008 23:12  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

oddly, the only time i can think of in literature where women don't "participate in their own exile" im your eloquent phrase, is lysistrata. we are the peacemakers, doncha know, so we back down whenever necessary. don't we still?

also i'd love to know more about what you mean here by another lovely phrase: a reconciliation of opposites

29 February, 2008 11:02  

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hi, and thanks so much for stopping by. i spend all too much time thinking my own thoughts about this stuff, so please tell me yours. i thrive on the exchange!

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