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Kabuki Escapes: Woodblock Prints by U. Kunisada

February 03 - April 08

Consult a dictionary and you might find a definition such as this for the word “escape": a form of temporary distraction from reality or routine.

It could be said kabuki theater, perhaps all theater, is motivated by our instinct for escape. This exhibit focuses on imagery that is resonant of escape, both in the stories depicted and in the way Kunisada presents his designs. Its organization is a collaborative escape by Matt Brown and Taylor MacNeil, who together enjoy the escapism inherent in collecting Japanese woodblock prints.

Kunisada's kabuki prints (yakusha-e), represent a dominant focus of his work. Immersed in the kabuki theater world (friends with many of the leading kabuki actors and playwrights), his work also included beauty prints (bijin-ga), erotic prints (shunga), sumo wrestling prints (musha-e), book illustration, surimono prints, and paintings.

Kabuki actor clapping hyoshigi blocks, signaling the start of a performance.

Date: mid-1830s
from the collection of Taylor MacNeil

Genji Flowers (Hana), from the series Snow, Moon, and Flowers of Eastern Genji, 1854

1854, Publisher, Iseya Kanekichi; Blockcutter: Y. Takejirô

The Tale of Genji originated as an 11th century novel written by Lady Murasaki Shikibu, who worked at the Imperial Heian court. 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 the 15th century. The plot of this updated version revolves around the adventures of Ashikaga Mitsuuji, second son of Ashikaga Yoshimasa, who haunts the pleasure quarters of Edo (instead of the Heian court of the original tale). Mitsuuji seeks a stolen sword, mirror, and poem, (somehow these treasures need to be found to restore the stability of Japan). While on his pursuit Mitsuuji seduces many women, has children by several of them, and though seemingly an endless philanderer always seems to come out on fine, like the original Prince Genji, fortunate and transcendent, as do his lovers and offspring.
Kunisada's illustrations for the book (which was produced in a series over 13 years) became a source for numerous single sheet print projects, several series of diptcyhs, and other print projects, many of which accompanied theater productions of the Genji story (Genji Moyô Furisode Hinagata).

Genji Moyô Furisode Hinagata (A Rustic Genji)

This triptych is from a production of Sept., 1851 in which Danjuro VIII played the role of Ashikaga Jirô no kimi.

Yûgiri, from the series Lasting Impressions of a Late Genji Collection (Genji goshû yojô), Ch. 39

This diptych was published by Ebisuya Shôshichi (Kinshôdô) in 1858, one of 38 diptychs that developed into oban-sized full color prints Kunisada's original illustrations for Tanehiko's “A Fraudulent Murasaki’s Rustic Genji", published over 20 years earlier. The series involves fancy blind printing, printing with silver, mica, and gold, and particularly fine carving of the blocks. The scene involves a night-time escape into the power of story embodied in an elaborate scroll.

Night Murder on a Boat, 1850

I am making slow progress identifying this triptych, and the play it depicts. Likely it portrays the murder of the well-known courtesan Takao on the Sumida River. It may be the murderer is Tanizō, the retainer of daimyo lord Akingo Yorikane, seeking to avert Yorikane's destructive obsession with Takao.

Utagawa Kunisada inherited from his father a ferry service across the Sumida River, and this gave him a guaranteed annual income for most of his life. The resource may also have given him an intuition for the experience of being out on boats; he was able to translate into some wonderful boat imagery. Notice the swooping composition which emphasizes the experience of witnessing foul play out on the water in boats.

The Story of Tokijiro and Urazato (the dance play Akegarasu Hana no Nureginu)

From the kabuki play Akegarasu Yuki Urasato

Bandô Shûka I as Yamanaya Urazato,
Ichimura Uzaemon XIII as the child,
Ichikawa Danjūrō VIII as Kasugaya Tokijirô,
performed at the Ichimura Theater, 1851.
Diptych from the collection of Taylor MacNeil.

On a winter afternoon Urazato has been tied up in the back garden of the brothel where she works, punishment for her attempt to meet up with her lover Tokijiro. The diptych portrays the moment Tokijiro climbs the fence and rescues Urazato and their child. Their escape brings little relief. Realizing they have nowhere to flee, they take their own lives in an event of double suicide.

Imoseyama Onna Teikin (Adventures of Eboshiori Motome)

This triptych is beautiful. The balance of colors, lovely reds, pinks, and purples dancing along in delicate patterns before a spacious field of varied blue-green color, feels happy and care-free, like an escape to a fresh spring morning.

This play follows 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 apprehension 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 sparks fly. Omiwa loses her life, but gains immortality by supplying blood which, in a convoluted way we can't figure out, allows for the overthrow of Iruka and his grasp on power.

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