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THE RUTH CHANDLER WILLIAMSON Gallery of Scripps College in Claremont, California, has a beautiful exhibit titled “On Stage: Japanese Theater Prints and Costume (Kabuki, Bunraku and Noh)” running through December 17, 2016. Daughter Suz and I recently visited the exhibit, enjoyed it and learned a lot.


Many of the exhibit’s woodblock prints come from Tsukioka Kogyo, One Hundred Noh Plays: Shakkyo, 1922. Tsukioka Kogyo, 1869–1927, was an artist born a year after Japan’s opening to the Western world. His works and others of this Meiji era, 1868–1912, represented something of a return to Japanese culture after the initial widespread assimilation of Western concepts in art as well as dress and diplomacy. The artist’s series of woodblock prints celebrate Noh, highly stylized theater, in addition to the later Kabuki, more earthy and popular with an emerging Japanese middle class.

The exhibit was curated by Bruce A. Coats, Professor of Art History and the Humanities, and colleagues at Scripps College. Its many Noh woodblock prints broaden my view of this ancient Japanese theater genre. Before, I had thought of Noh dramas as parables, not representative of actual people. However, the woodblock prints’ accompanying descriptions give vignettes of plays that are often dramatic renderings of actual events in Japanese history.


A Noh theater. This and other images are from the exhibit.

At the exhibit’s entry, the three-panel print shown here brings visitors into a typical Noh theater. Its open-air stage has the classic pine tree as its sole scenery. Nobles, samurai and other favored theater-goers get prime seating. The rest of the audience is made up of rambunctious groundlings, to use the Elizabethan theater term for them.


Daughter Suz may be planning an addition to her wardrobe.

Noh and Kabuki costumes are also part of the exhibit, as are masks worn by Noh actors. Several of the masks have wispy beards to suggest the character’s wisdom. Some have movable lower jaws to enhance the theatrics of chanted utterances.


A Noh mask.

One of my favorite Kabuki characters, the lion, has a role in Noh. The exhibit includes a Kogyo woodblock print of the famed lion dance from Shakkyo (The Stone Bridge).


Lion dance in front of peonies, from Shakkyo (The Stone Bridge), woodblock print by Tuskioka Kogyo, c. 1925–1928.

I also have a new favorite character in Shōjō, a woodblock print by Hanabusa Hideki. It’s based on a play with a particularly happy ending: A sea sprite visits a wine merchant known for his filial piety. The creature samples the merchant’s stock, gets drunk and dances, then gives him a wine cask that magically never runs dry.


Your author and new friend. Photo by Suz Simanaitis. Below, Shōjō, c. 1950, by Hanabusa Hideki. Photo and insights provided by Jennifer Anderson, Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery.


My pal is joyously preparing here for a classic Kabuki foot stomp.

There are several art catalogs on sale at the exhibit, one of which jumped into my hands. It’s an especially appropriate good match with the exhibit’s emphasis of Japanese theater arts from the late 19th and first half of the 20th century.


Chikanobu: Modernity and Nostalgia in Japanese Prints, assembled with text by Bruce A. Coats, Hotei Publishing, 2006. 

Assembled with text by exhibit curator Bruce A. Coats, Chikanobu: Modernity and Nostalgia in Japanese Prints shares the contrasts of old and new that accompanied Japan’s Meiji entry into the world’s larger realm.


Ichikawa Danjurō IX as Satō Masakiyo in The Castle Keep Scene, woodblock print by Yōshi Chikanobu. This and the following images are from Chikanobu.

Yōshi Chikanobu, 1838–1912, was an artist whose life overlapped with Japan’s Meiji era, 1868-1912. The woodblock print above depicts a scene from an 1801 Kabuki play, one depicting an alleged poisoning of the great warrior Katō Kiromasu in 1611. The main character’s name change to Satō Masakiyo was part of government censorship at the time.


A scene from the play The Morning East Wind Clearing the Clouds of the Southwest; Kabuki advertising poster by Chikanobu, 1877.

The Satsuma Rebellion of 1877 sent government forces to suppress rebels in the southwest island of Kyushu. It also prompted an 1878 Kabuki play, again with thinly disguised name changes of leading characters. Note the Western influence of the uniforms.


Actor cards by Chikanobu, c. early 1880s.

Chikanobu also produced woodblock prints for a number of board games and playing cards. The set above contains three rows of three actors, each row from a particular play. The set may have been part of a game.

Chikanobu also produced art for paper kites and battledores (small rackets used in a forerunner of badminton). Professor Coats notes that these products were “usually with his name prominently displayed so that by the mid-1880s he had obviously acquired ‘name recognition‘ status as an important nishiki-e illustrator….”

Chikanobu caught on to Western ways very quickly indeed. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2016

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