From Cherry Trees to Rebellion | These actors look quite Machiavellian

The Stars of the Tokyo Stage: Natori Shunsen’s Kabuki Actor Prints, was an exhibition held in galleries around Australia during 2012-2014. It celebrated the glamour of the kabuki theatre amid the dynamic atmosphere of Japan in the 1920s and 1930s. Drawn from the collection of the National Gallery of Australia, Natori Shunsen’s superb woodblock portraits of the superstar actors of the time, were reproduced and discussed in detail. They were displayed alongside a selection of spectacular costumes from the kabuki stage. The following are three of the woodblock prints which were part of this exhibition. They feature three different kabuki actors from this period.

Okochi Denijiro as Tange Sazen (1931). From the series Supplement to the collection of portraits by Shunsen. [Woodblock print; ink and colour on paper]. It is from Tange Sazen  an original story written by Fubo Hayashi. The first Tange Sazen films were made in 1928.

  • A fictional character, Tange Sazen, is a loyal samurai, who is betrayed and ambushed in an attack; during which he loses his right eye and right arm. With his superb swordsmanship intact, Tange Sazen becomes a ronin (masterclass samurai).

Kataoka Ichizo IV as Benkei in ‘The Cherry Trees of the Imperial Palace‘ (1927), [Woodblock print, ink and colour on paper sheet]. The ‘Cherry Trees‘ was written by Matsuda Bunkodo and Miyoshi Shoraku and its first kabuki performance was in 1755.

  • It is an epic drama set during the 12th Century war between the Minamoto and Taira families. Minamoto leader, Yoritomo, has become shogun but remains under threat from the Taira. His brother Yoshitsune, one of the most revered heroes of Japanese history, is a brilliant Minamoto commander. The play’s most famous scene is ‘Benkei – the envoy which centres on Yoshitsune’s devoted retainer. The print captures the moment after Benkei fatally wounds Shinobu, when he reveals to himself to be her father.

Nakamura Kichieman I as Takechi Mitsuhide in ‘The Banner of Rebellion‘, (1925), from the series Collection of creative portraits by Shunsen [Woodblock print, ink and colour on paper sheet]. ‘The Banner of Rebellion’s‘ first performance was in 1808, by Tsuruya Nanboku IV.

  • The kabuki play examines the complexities of samurai loyalty and dramatizes Mitsuhide’s betrayal of Oda Nobunaga, the powerful 16th Century warlord who laid the foundations for the unification of Japan. To comply with government censorship in the play, the historical Oda Nobunaga is renamed Oda Harunaga and Akechi Mitsuhide, as Takechi Misuhide.

Each of these woodblock prints were created by Shunsen Natori, also known as Natori Shunsen, who was born Natori Yoshinosuke on February 7, 1886. Natori was he fifth son of a silk merchant, in the Yamanashi Prefecture. His family settled in Tokyo shortly after his birth, where he remained until his death in 1960. From the age of eleven, Natori studied with traditional Nihonga (Japanese-style) painter Kubota Beisen; and was given his artist’s name “Shunsen“. He subsequently studied at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts.

Natori was considered by many to be the last master in the art of kabuki yakusha-e (actor woodblock prints), which were popular through the Japanese Edo period (1603-1867).  He developed an interest in kabuki actor portraits while working as an illustrator for the newspaper Asahi Shimbun. Natori’s actor portraits were mainly in the ōkubi-e (large head) format which allowed him to focus on the expression and emotions of the character’s face. His works are held in many museum and gallery collections worldwide.

  • After Natori’s 22 year old daughter died of pneumonia in 1958, his fatal demise, sounds like the final scene from a kabuki tragedy. Natori and his wife, committed suicide through poison, at their daughter’s grave two years later, on March 30, 1960.

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Source: Stars of the Tokyo Stage: Natori Shunsen’s kabuki actor prints. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2012
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