Kabuki drama and therefore the woodblock prints that derive from the performances, are populated by Heroes and Villains. It is a simplistic view of the world, an escapism similar in many respects to the contemporary gaming that owes a great deal to the basic components of Japanese folk lore and popular theatre.
The performance space is maybe ‘liminal’… it’s a porous barrier whereby the audience can slip between worlds in much the same way as the avid gamer does in contemporary life. The elements of a typical kabuki play will involve a mythical past that is historic in the sense that it is not ‘now’, but ahistoric in the sense that it is not either a particular ‘then’. The plot will be complex, very complicated and it will often involve transformation – from a man into a toad, a woman into a slug, a villain into a rat and so on. The villains will be easily identified, the heroes and the heroines sympathetically rendered although also flawed. The performances could last all day. Like gaming, kabuki relies on full immersion… like the early modern theatre of Shakespeare or the movies of Andy Warhol, the immersive experience was one that could be enjoyed either wholly or in parts… breaks being taken to eat food outside or visit with friends and so on.
The mythos of kabuki was a concoction of the people. The theatre was utterly demotic and in distinct contrast to the ‘high culture’ of the noh theatre – the entertainment of noblemen and the court – which was highly stylised and etiolated. These myths would have often started in folk history or the puppet theatre and been expanded upon by collaborations between authors, actors and impresarios, (echoes again of Tudor theatre). A fertile exchange of story-telling thus evolved between the playwright, the audience and the printmakers and artists.
In the five sheet print at the top of the page, Hana Sugata Nobori Sugoroku, we see a vast crowd of famous actors in well known roles crowding up the steps of a temple; in fact I think we can safely say that it is the steps to the Gokuraku-ji Temple in Kyoto – the red timber structures of the temple gate are crammed into the top right sheet. The actors rush towards the figure of Nippon Daemon who is the character in the black fright wig at the top of the steps holding a blue box. Note how similar in stance and character Daemon is to the picture of another villain, Ishikawa Goemon (above). These characters are all of course archetypes – the desire of the townsman.
This is not a usual woodblock print of a kabuki performance. None of these characters would really appear together on the same stage. This is a derivation of another popular pursuit: Sugoroku. Sugoroku is a traditional Japanese board game similar to snakes and ladders. The genre quickly became popular in nineteenth century Japan and the boards became crowded with images of famous kabuki actors instead of places on the board. Over time the games became unplayable, the boards were simply too crowded and the game too indistinct and hence these lavish sheets of prints came to stand in (like so much in Edo culture) for something else… a vehicle to popularise kabuki fans.
It needs to be remembered here that the actors and artists we are looking at were heavily persecuted in a series of censorship laws from 1844 onwards called the ‘Tenpo Reforms’. These laws were aimed at cleaning up the loose morals of the townspeople. Actors were considered immoral and decadent, woodblock prints which were often highly pornographic, or else used imagery from the theatre were also subject to outlandish restrictions. Laws were passed limiting the size of a print, the number of colours used, the subjects that were allowed and so on. Famous artists such as Kuniyoshi were imprisoned and actors were bankrupted and stripped of their possessions and exiled.
This print dates from 1864 when the restrictions were eased but nevertheless the habit of disguising actor prints persisted in a kind of cat and mouse game with the authorities. What we have then is a great big fan poster of the most famous actors and the favourite roles they might play, all set on the steps of a temple… the very temple in fact that is the finale of one of the most popular plays of the time, Benten Kozo. Benten Kozo tells the story of Nippon Daemon, a robber and gang leader who is chased by the police to the temple at Gokuraku-ji. The transition to the next scene is likely one of the largest, and most famous stage tricks in kabuki. The entire roof of the stage set tilts backwards and out of the way, revealing Nippon Daemon standing on a veranda within the temple gate.
Everything in the composition leads our eye up the steps to this great kabuki hero/villain. But this is more than just a celebration of a popular antihero, the hard to translate title of the print, Hana Sugata Nobori Sugoroku, means, ‘the lovely flowers climbing the board game’… the word ‘flowers’ in this context is commonly used to denote actors or well loved people, hence ‘The Flowers of Edo’ was a popular title for series of actor prints. (Here Edo refers to the old medieval name of present day Tokyo and the culture that it spawned.) This print is a kind of primer for kabuki lovers. The steps of the temple are littered with small cursive kanji, each giving the names of the adjacent actor and role.
It is a good introduction not only to the kabuki genre but also to the concepts of a populist theatre receptive to a clamorous public. The to and fro of culture from the theatre to the printmakers and public and back again saw cultural phenomena take root and grow outside the enclosed world of the stage. Tattoos are a good example. The craze for full body or sleeve tattoos was established in a series of woodblock prints made by Kuniyoshi in the 1820’s. Before that, there was no precedent for such a thing. Actors seeing the popularity of warrior tattoos adopted printed silk sleeves in imitation of the prints. Street fighting men and firemen adopted the full body tattoo in imitation of the actors on stage and this in turn fed back into the theatre and the print scene. Of course that tradition through the popularisation of the Yakuza gangster is now a worldwide, contemporary phenomenon.
In a similar vein, women’s fashions were greatly affected by the parodic exaggerations of the male actors (the onnagata) who played female roles. These onnagata roles were taken very seriously and there was in no sense a comic or derisory intent on the part of the performers. Females had long been banned from acting – ever since the seventeenth century when kabuki was an entertainment performed by prostitutes – and the female roles were often the most tragic and dramatic.
The print of course, like all Japanese prints plays with representation. By not adopting one point perspective, by not hanging pictures on walls as windows, Japanese artists were able to avoid the obligation to abide by spatial illusion. This extends beyond drawing, it means that in theatre prints for example, layers of meaning can be established whereby the actor plays the role of the character, and the theatre props stand in for the outside world… but in the woodblock prints, often the representation of that world is an unsettling halfway house between the two states – the liminal or potential space of the viewer’s imagination. So it is with this great print… we are suspended between the actuality of the actor portraits, the assumed identity of the roles and the fantasy of the temple steps and the certainty that these individuals could never assemble in such clamorous disarray. We can add to that the texts in kanji that litter the surface of the print… some of the text respects the spatial context – such as the blue plaque that Daemon is holding up – other elements of text hover between worlds, neither wholly attached to stone work nor fighting free of it.
We are interlopers in this drama that was never performed, the fighting men at the bottom and the ferocious bandits at the top. Perhaps this was conceived as a means to announce the new ‘season’ of the kabuki theatre, appropriately enough the ‘Spring Season’… .