Toshidama Gallery is currently showing some very fine Meiji woodblock prints amongst which are some extraordinary portraits of the Meiji era kabuki star Ichikawa Danjuro IX (1838 – 1903). Danjuro, probably more than any other actor, typifies our contemporary image of kabuki. There were of course many forerunners both in his own lineage and in the lines of the other great actor families that stretch back hundreds of years, but in Danjuro we observe that very modern attribute of the celebrity – public relations. There are considerably more representations of Danjuro than any other actor; not just the conventional portrayals of the drama, but for the first time we find series of prints that celebrate the star as an individual. These portrait series nominally depict the role, but the format and idea of series is different to their predecessors. In Kunichika’s 100 Roles of Ichikawa Danjuro, or Migita Toshihide’s series Portraits of Sansho, Danjuro is the primary subject – stagecraft, character and context are all secondary to the portrayal of the great actor superstar.
This shift of attitude is very modern, both reflecting the changed circumstances of late nineteenth century Japanese culture, and predicting contemporary western fascination with celebrity. In many respects, the Japanese (often derided for lacking innovation) have once again led the way in the field of popular culture.
Like all kabuki actors, Danjuro used several names during his career, including; Kawarazaki Sanshō, Kawarazaki Gonnosuke VII, Kawarazaki Gonjūrō I, Kawarazaki Chōjūrō III, and Ichikawa Jukai II. He first took to the stage aged seven years and from then carved out a stellar career on the kabuki stage, fostering traditional drama and crucially innovating a form of kabuki that would dominate the theatres of Meiji Japan. Danjuro more or less created the katsureki play – a form of drama based on historical events and which crucially uses historically accurate names. There had for decades been the subversive convention of portraying contemporary events via the lens of history; a device which allowed covert criticism of the old shogunate administration through analogy with disguised historical events. Danjuro responded to Meiji directives urging the use of historically accurate names on stage in 1872 by staging Sangoku Muso Hisago no Gunsen (The Battle Fan and the Gourd) and thereafter re-crafted the kabuki canon in his role first as manager of the rebuilt theatre the Kawarazaki-za. and later in 1889 as manager of the world famous Kabuki-za.
Danjuro was much more than an actor; he was an active manager, producer and impresario. He was a direct descendant of the Danjuro clan and a promoter of not only the new history plays but also his family’s arrogant claim to the Kabuki Juhachiban – eighteen classic kabuki plays and dances commandeered by his grandfather Danjuro VII in 1832. By 1840, plays from the list were described in ukiyo-e prints and in advertising as Juhachiban no uchi (‘from the eighteen’). Among these plays claimed by the clan were some of the oldest and most revered kabuki works. This coup de theatre by the Danjuros established the line as the leading actors of their time. Danjuro IX secured the family’s place in the second half of the century via his relentless entrepreneurship and shameless self promotion.
The astonishingly good series, Kabuki Juhachiban by Jusoso Tadakiyo and his father from 1896 reaffirmed his status and his right to the kabuki canon. This deluxe series (one of the best of Meiji woodblock printing) illustrated Danjuro in each of the eighteen plays. The quality of printing was exceptional even by Meiji standards with rich and complex embossed surfaces, thick luxurious papers and metallic and reflective inks. Three years earlier Migita Toshihide produced a similar series titled Portraits of Sansho which showed Danjuro in these great roles and in a more traditional manner. Dramatic and exuberant, these full face portraits are also beautifully executed and finished. An interesting comparison can be made with a contemporary photograph of Danjuro in the role of Benkei and Toshihide’s portrait from the same play. The exaggeration, flattery and skill of the ukiyo-e artist are very evident as are the relative shortcomings of photography as an advertising medium.
The greatest of these is surely Toyohara Kunichika’s series The 100 Roles of Ichikawa Danjuro, a full one hundred separate roles printed in deluxe format recording the highlights of Danjuro’s career. Kunichika was a friend and advocate of Danjuro, although they frequently fell out. Between them they promoted the new kabuki plays and sought through design and ingenuity to revive the waning enthusiasm for the theatre. Kunichika began the series in 1893, and though he was to produce all of the designs in his lifetime (1835 – 1900), the final prints were not published until 1903. After the death of Kunichika, and of Danjuro three years later, kabuki theatre as a popular art form went into steep decline. Only recently has there been a significant international revival of interest although kabuki is now the preserve of enthusiasts and has lost its grip on the popular imagination. Equally, interest and appreciation for the great woodblock prints of the late nineteenth century has become fashionable and these great works of art by Kunichika, Yoshitoshi, Toshihide and others are receiving the overdue attention that they deserve. These fine and engaging works of art have been shamefully overlooked but there is still an opportunity to own truly great art of the nineteenth century for a fraction of its true value.
Art of the Meiji: Japanese Prints 1868 – 1904 is at The Toshidama Gallery until 23rd November 2012.