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Bringing to Life Danjuro VIII: Prints by Utagawa Kunisada (Toyokuni III)

February 04 - April 16

This exhibit explores Kunisada's depiction of the kabuki acting career of Ishikawa Danjuro VIII, one of the more famous members of perhaps the most well-known lineage of kabuki actors. Danjuro VIII joined his father Danjuro VII on stage at the age of 7, in 1830, as Ichikawa Ebizō VI. Begun by Danjuro I (whose acting career began in 1675), made especially popular by the career of Danjuro V (1741 - 1806), Ebizo IV took on the Danjuro name from his father in 1832. At that time his father went back to being Ebizo V and the two continued to perform together until, in the fall of 1854, Danjuro VIII took his own life while the two were on tour in Osaka. It is thought he had become overwhelmed by debts (following his father's example of a life of excess) or trapped in a depression.
The lineage continued. 30 years after Danjuro VIII's death a younger brother re-kindled the name as Danjuro IX. In 1985 Danjuro XII took on the name and championed it until his death in 2013. He is followed by his son Ebizo XI, who had planned to take on the name of Danjuro XIII in 2020 but postponed because of the Covid hiatus. The lineage has been handed down mostly through blood lines (father to son, or between brothers) and through a few adoptions throughout the entire 400-year history of kabuki theater.
Learn more about Ebizo XI.

The Plays of Ichikawa Danjuro VIII

Utagawa Kunisada was exceptionally popular and prolific in his own time, he dominated especially in the designing of yakusha-e, actor prints connected to kabuki theater. This exhibit is shaped by prints I have collected since becoming aware of Kunisada's work in the fall of 2017. The pursuit was inspired by an exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts: “Showdown! Kuniyoshi vs. Kunisada", August 11–December 10, 2017, curated by Japanese art historian Sarah Thompson. Kunisada's actor prints have been my focus, early on prints depicting Danjuro VIII stood out. Though my pursuit has been mostly motivated by an effort to learn from Kunisada's dynamic designs, I have noticed my enjoyment increases if I know more about the stories behind the prints.
Kunisada depicted Danjuro VIII in literally hundreds of print designs, and many of these images are exceptional. What made this actor so interesting to Kunisada? Was it his friendship with Danjuro VII, father to Danjuro VIII? Was it the drama of the young son's acting career? Was it his intense popularity, was Kunisada mostly responding to the keen interest of the print-buying public for images of Danjuro VIII?

Staging an exhibit is a way to answers questions such as these. I have organized things around the plays. It is the case that the printing dates of most of the prints coincide with the performance dates of the plays. This is fascinating. It seems the two art forms were flowering at the same time, achieving a high level of commercial success through their mutual symbiosis. Hundreds of actors and supporting staff were likely employed in the workings of the theaters, thousands in the production of the prints. They seemingly functioned both as advertisements and as souvenirs to accompany the theater-going experience. Playbills were made to tell the stories of the plays; these prints were different, more likely to fulfill a desire to have longer lasting imagery, active dynamic art that could be mounted on screens, collected in albums, or stashed away for theater-goers to use to replay the theater experiences so many were likely addicted to.

The Kabuki theater world of mid-19th century Edo was voluminous, the number of prints and plays involved is overwhelming. By comparing prints and sleuthing sources such as www.kabuki21, I have endeavored to learn the stories of the plays, the roles, and the actors, hoping to offer a way to travel back to the dramatic and alluring Edo theater world of a time just ahead of the dramatic changes which would be ushered in with the arrival of Admiral Perry's American ships in 1853.

Shibaraku! (Stop a Moment!)

Shibaraku is not a full play, it is single scene often performed alongside other dramas. An evil is about to take the lives of several and the character of Konnômaru Masatoshi comes marching down the hanamachi (long platform gangway that leads to the main stage on stage right). Evidently much of the idea of the drama goes back to Danjuro I who, in 1697 (tradition has it) yelled out “Stop a moment,” not only because of the evolving action on stage but because fellow actors were overlooking his entrance cue.
The role is performed in a heavy costume emblazoned in the red and white square motif of the Ichikawa clan; it is one historically connected to the Danjuro lineage.

This 1852 image of Danuro VIII in the role of Konnômaru Masatoshi (Shibaraku) is part of an imagined matching of famous actors with well-known locations in the city of Edo. Shibuya (# 24) is a ward of Tokyo, today one of the busiest parts of the city. Throughout the Edo period it was the site of the palace of the Shibuya family. A railroad dept built in 1889 led to the development of a commercial district which now includes one of the busiest railway stations in the world, Shibuya Station. The district is also a center for IT business, a popular fashion and shopping area, and houses abundant night-life and flashy sky-scrapers.

In my opinion Kunisada's dramatic compositional treatment of the portrait anticipates some of this futuristic drama. The impact of the print is exceptionally modern and full of power.

Jiraiya Gôketsu Monogatari

The story of Jiraiya derives from legends going back to China of the 8th century. The Tale of the Gallant Jiraiya continues today in the form of anime cartoon films. It has inspired at least one Pokemon character, Froakie. Most of these prints are from a July, 1852 production of the play at the Kawarasakiza Theater in Edo that was very popular. The play for that production was written by Kawatake Mokuami, but the story of Jiraiya had been developed by numerous authors during the early part of the 19th century (1839 to 1868). In 1975 “Jiraiya Gôketsu Monogatari" was revived in a production at the National Theater, and the character of Jiraiya also lives on in anime cartoon form (in the “Naruto" manga series created by Masashi Kishimoto).

Jiraiya and Princess Tagato, on the run and in disguise.

Godairiki Koi no Fûjime (Five Great Powers of Love)

Godairiki Koi no Fûjime centers around a love triangle between Satsuma Gengobê (hero of the play), his lover Sakuraya Koman, and Sasano Sangobê (the villain). Koman has shown her love for Gengobe by cutting off her little pinkie finger, but still there is still room for doubt and jealousy . Towards the end of the play Gengobe murders Koman after finding a letter forged by Sangobe declaring Koman's love for Sangobe. Oh dear.

It seems the play was not all tragic and Gengobei and Koman have some fun times together. Here Kunisada depicts them visiting a book-seller. Well maybe, this character (Ameuri Fukukichi), carrying his wares in a barrel mounted on a board, might not be selling books, it is tricky to make out exactly what he might be selling. Kunisada's actor prints include lots of reference to commercial activities: depictions of salesmen of all types, cloth merchants, shoe salesmen, picture-dealers, I have one print whose main motive is the depiction of the sales booth of a female toothbrush vendor.

Genji Moyô Furisode Hinagata (A Rustic Genji)

The Tale of Genji originated as a 10th century novel written by a Lady Murasaki Shikibu. In the 1820's Kunisada collaborated with author Ryūtei Tanehiko (1783 – 1842) in the publication of an updated version of the tale: “A Fraudulent Murasaki’s Rustic Genji" by Ryūtei Tanehiko, 1829–1842), set in 15th century . Kunisada's illustrations for the book (which was produced in series over 13 years) became a source for numerous single sheet print projects, many of which accompanied theater productions of the Genji story (Genji Moyô Furisode Hinagata). The depicted triptych is from a production of Sept., 1851 in which Danjuro VIII played the role of Ashikaga Jirô no kimi.

Note the accentuated perspective heightening the theatrical focus on Danjuro in this captured moment of theatrical ambiguity. I haven't been able to find out a great deal about the story depicted, but am quite taken by the way Kunisada develops the feeling of a dramatic moment and the psychological interaction of these five actors with his juxtaposed patterns and the strong diagonals of his composition.

Imoseyama Onna Teikin (Adventures of Eboshiori Motome)

This play revolves around a love triangle between Motome, a disguised Princess Tachibana (sister to the villain, Soga no Iruka, who is attempting to overthrow the Emperor) and Omiwa, who lives next door to where Motome is living (Motome is living in hiding, seeking to avoid apprehesion by Soga no Iruka).
The print depicts the 3rd scene of Act IV: “The Spool of Love Travel Dance" (Michiyuki Koi no Odamaki). Danjuro VIII, in the role of Motome, attaches a spool of red thread to Princess Tachibana's kimono to be able to follow her home following a night-time visit. Omiwa, Motome's lover, does the same, attaching a spool of white thread so she can follow Motome. All three end up at the palace of Iruka, and its then that the sparks fly. Omiwa loses her life, but gains immotality in her role supplying blood which

Shinpan Koshi no Shiranami (The Tale of Kijin Omatsu and Natsume Shirosaburo)

This triptych was made alongside a performance of the play at the Ichimura Theater in Nov., 1851. The play stars the famous pair of actors, Bando Shuka I and Danjuro VIII, in the roles of the female demon robber Kijin Omatsu and her samurai consort Natsume Shirosaburo. In this triptych are pictured Omatsu's band of thieves, on the left, and Shirosaburo holding the couple's child, on the right.

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