Image of Japanese print showing perspective view of theatre stage at Sakai-chō in Edo

Online Exhibition

Edo in Colour

Prints from Japan’s Metropolis

Bravura

Japan’s kabuki theatre was a popular entertainment that upset social order by winning the adoration of samurai retainers, daimyō lords and ladies in waiting. The term kabuki was first used to describe off-beat performances by female dance troupes in Kyoto. When authorities banned women from performing, kabuki developed into staged drama performed by men. Actor prints became a mainstay of Edo’s publishing industry. Whether serving as advance promotion or cherished souvenir, prints and printed books deepened the city’s consumption of its on-stage heroes and celebrated their craft. Wildly entertaining or exceptionally accomplished, kabuki’s performance in print was nothing less than bravura.

Back to Edo in Colour

Perspective view of theatre stage at Sakai-chō in Edo
Rekisentei Eiri
Japan, c. 1796
CBL J 2502

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  • Image of Japanese print showing actor Ichikawa Danjūrō II as Sanada no Yoichi

    Actor Ichikawa Danjūrō II as Sanada no Yoichi
    Torii Kiyomasu II
    Japan, 1725
    CBL J 2431
    Edo’s most ostentatious contribution to the world of kabuki was ‘rough acting’ or aragoto. Developed by actor Ichikawa Danjūrō I and his successors, the aragoto hero was overbearing and oversized, and not averse to superhuman feats of strength and bravery. With glaring eyes and bold striped makeup, he presented a sharp contrast to the romantic leads favoured in Kyoto and Osaka, and a perfect fit for the military profile of Edo.

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  • Image of Japanese printed picture book of the stage in fans

    Picture book of the stage in fans
    Ippitsusai Bunchō and Katsukawa Shunshō
    Japan, 1770
    CBL J 1644.3
    Kabuki’s ensemble cast included fashionable male youths and treacherous villains, represented here by actors Ichikawa Komazō and Nakamura Nakazō. On stage, the course of true love rarely ran smoothly, family heirlooms were in constant peril, and vendettas were pursued to their fatal conclusion. As outlandish as plots could become, many tales claimed some truth in their origins.

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  • Image of Japanese print showing actors Bandō Mitsugorō I as Hanbei and Yamashita Kinsaku as Ochiyo

    Actors Bandō Mitsugorō I as Hanbei and Yamashita Kinsaku as Ochiyo
    Ippitsusai Bunchō
    Japan, 1770
    CBL J 2464
    Male actors specialised in playing women were known as onnagata. They can often be recognised in print by the purple cloth worn on their forehead. Seeking to reduce actors’ sensual appeal, the shogunate required them to shave their forelocks. The purple cloth covered this spot and was retained even when wigs were used. Leading onnagata marketed makeup lines and set women’s fashions in the city.

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  • Image of Japanese print showing actors Ichikawa Danjūrō V and Nakamura Nakazō I

    Actors Ichikawa Danjūrō V and Nakamura Nakazō I
    Katsukawa Shunshō
    Japan, 1781
    CBL J 2650
    A woodcutter’s axe on his shoulder, Ichikawa Danjūrō V was the son of famed actor Ichikawa Danjūrō IV. He in turn became one of Edo’s most popular actors of the 1770s and 1780s. On his right stands Nakamura Nakazō. Nakazō was discovered by Danjūrō IV while working as a bit-part actor. He defied his humble beginnings to achieve fame and success. Known for playing villains, he stands feet together and poised to lunge—a pose known as soku mie.

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  • Image of Japanese print Memorial portrait of actor Ichikawa Yaozō II

    Memorial portrait of actor Ichikawa Yaozō II
    Katsukawa Shundō
    Japan, 1777
    CBL J 2628
    Kabuki enjoyed the support of legions of ardent fans. Poised within the rising smoke of an incense burner while lotus petals fall from heavenly clouds, this print commemorates actor Ichikawa Yaozō II. It is the earliest known example of a memorial portrait print. Excelling in both aragoto (‘rough acting’) and wagoto (‘gentle acting’) roles, Yaozō was also regarded as especially handsome. His sudden death left the city in grief.

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  • Image of Japanese print showing actors Mimasu Tokujirō I and Matsumoto Kōshirō IV in scene from Love’s Courier

    Actors Mimasu Tokujirō I and Matsumoto Kōshirō IV in scene from Love’s Courier
    Torii Kiyonaga
    Japan, 1784
    CBL J 2429
    The singer-storytellers and musicians that accompanied kabuki generally sat out of view. This print shows a degatari scene, meaning ‘the narrator appears.’ Degatari were emotionally charged song and dance numbers. While actors danced in mime, the musicians and narrators performed behind them on a raised platform. Artist Torii Kiyonaga designed more than thirty degatari prints in the 1780s. He identifies the singing narrators in the same manner as the actors—through crests and facial likeness.

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  • Image of Japanese print showing Edoya, from the series Portraits of actors on stage

    Edoya
    From the series Portraits of actors on stage
    Utagawa Toyokuni
    Japan, 1795
    CBL J 2567
    At a time when more complex compositions were common, Utagawa Toyokuni’s series ‘Portraits of actors on stage’ were stripped back to focus again on the individual actor. More than fifty prints were issued. Performing the role of Oishi in the vendetta tale Kanadehon Chūshingura, Iwai Kiyotarō II is named on the print as Edoya. Edoya was Kiyotarō’s house name. Kabuki fans shouted out house names mid-performance whenever their favourite performed particularly well.

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  • Image of Japanese print showing actor Iwai Hanshirō IV as the wet-nurse Shigenoi

    Actor Iwai Hanshirō IV as the wet-nurse Shigenoi
    Tōshūsai Sharaku
    Japan, 1794
    CBL J 2659
    The luxuriously finished and unflinchingly characterful ‘big head’ portraits designed by Tōshūsai Sharaku are today among the best known of Edo’s actor portraits. Sharaku’s print career was conspicuously brief, spanning little more than a year. Here, celebrated onnagata (actor of female roles) Iwai Hanshirō IV plays the wet-nurse Shigenoi. Forced to give up her only son, fate reunites the loving Shigenoi with her child, only for duty to separate them once more.

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  • Image of Japanese printed book showing amusements of actors on the third floor

    Amusements of actors on the third floor
    Utagawa Toyokuni
    Japan, 1801
    CBL J 1647.2
    Gossip about actors’ private lives was relished, so artists, authors and publishers contrived to offer up intimate images of actors behind the scenes and off duty. In one such fanciful moment, a group of actors are pictured unwinding on a pleasure boat. Pleasure boats on the Sumida river were a stylish means of staying cool on hot summer nights. His white scarf tied loosely around his neck and sake cup in hand, actor Ichikawa Komazō is the model of suave comportment.

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Closed today

Monday to Friday 9:45am - 5:30pm
Wednesday 9:45am - 8:00pm
Saturday 9:45am - 5:30pm
Sunday 12:00pm - 5:30pm


Closed Mondays: Nov - Feb
Closed 1 Jan; Good Friday; 24-26 Dec


Admission is Free
Suggested donation €5

Map

Chester Beatty
Dublin Castle
Dublin 2
D02 AD92