This is a very rich area indeed. The prints in the show reflect a full century of visual inventiveness and wordplay; brilliant tours de force of playful, intellectual and sheer visual pleasure derived from the populist Japanese theatre. There is an almost limitless range of ideas and enjoyment to be had in the very subtle ways that these artists were able to animate such a vital and complex subject as kabuki within the seemingly contrived and constricted format of the hand blocked, oban woodblock print.
Clearly, the subject is too big to deal with adequately in one show or a minor blog post! But I’d like here to look at the strange lacuna that exists between the stage, the performance, the understanding between the actors and the audience and what Kunichika calls – The Popularity of the Upstairs Dressing Room. ( See above). The exhibition has two prints that show actors backstage. They are fantastic images… Kunichika draws the actor Suketakaya Takasuke IV as he prepares to go on stage. His assistant is visible in silhouette speaking to the actor and holding out a sword. The banner hanging above his head is the stage curtain inscribed with the actor’s name. The actor is sandwiched between competing grids, the paper and bamboo ‘shoji’. We are bound to stay on the wrong side of the screen, he is at the point of leaving… a last sip of saki, pick up the sword and enter the stage. We can believe in the authenticity of the scene. Kunichika was intimate with all of the great stage actors and frequently inhabited the backstage, the wings and the dressing rooms. In this sought after series, he tells us something of that closeness. For a contemporary kabuki fan, the sight of an actor of renown pausing to sip a cup of saki would have been a tremendous thrill.
It’s an easy contrast with a print by Kunisada of essentially the same subject – Ichikawa Ichizô III in the Dressing Room, from 1862 – here the dresser is seen but only partially, from the neck down… his hands clutching at the gown that the actor is preparing to put on. Both these prints take the viewer into the intimate world of the actor, as Kunichika’s series title suggests. They remain actors though… in role, compressed into the claustrophobic space between two worlds… the truly private world of their ordinary lives and the public space of the stage. Both Kunisada and Kunichika make that space very flat… pressed thinly between shoji screens or hemmed in by the reverse of the stage curtain itself.
Confusion abounds elsewhere in a print by Toyokuni where the acts of the well known revenge play – The Chushingura – are printed as if they were actually happening. No room has been given in this fine display of western perspective to even the notional idea of a stage space… the title and the scene, much like Kuniyoshi’s version of the same play, (above), tell us that we are witnessing somehow a performance. Where though does that performance itself sit? On stage… or off stage? Now or in 1701? I am left thinking of the movie Westworld, where the actors (in fact robots) are condemned to enact violent, vengeful roles in an endless simulacra of a fictional past.
Elsewhere characters from kabuki are found enacting roles that imply an independent life outside the stage. In Twenty-four Paragons of the Meiji Restoration, Kunichika imagines characters from the stage, struggling to come to terms with life following the modernisation of the Meiji revolution… something that seems to resonate today with non-digital-natives. For example, a character such as Sugawara no Michizane who famously contains his emotion when confronted with his child’s head in a basket at the village school is contrasted with a modern classroom replete with mass-produced, instructional posters. From the same series the hero Choryo attempts to retrieve the slipper of a Chinese sage whilst in the background fashionable men and women choose foreign shoes from a modern shoe store.
In these different ways, the actors and the characters – who oddly and temporarily shared a public life – extended their existence off stage. A commonplace in today’s mega-visual world of celebrity and social media but in Japan in the nineteenth century this was, I’m guessing, perhaps the first manifestation of public celebrity in the modern sense. The task for ukiyo-e artists was to somehow picture that novel manifestation… perhaps even to invent aspects of it. Actors became brands, kabuki characters became emblems for grievance, heroism or any number of pressing social traits. Crucially the stage itself became a public arena, a debating chamber…
It is for this reason more than any other that the authorities sought to restrict or even ban kabuki theatre and the colourful prints that illustrated it. The ‘entertainment’ had stepped off the stage and into the realised, public arena.
Yakusha-e… theatre prints are then more than just beautiful, fleeting and mysterious; they are also vital, social, interactive documents… they are closest perhaps to the woodblocks of the German Expressionists and the theatre of Brecht, and it is in this context that it may be interesting to view them, against a backdrop of our own, contemporary, grief, unrest and discord.