Best in show: National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh - Museums Association

Best in show: National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh

Woodblock print of a scene from the kabuki theatre performance, Comparison of the Daté Clan: The Clashing of Hilts Among Rumours; Kuniyoshi, 1851, National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh
Interview by John Holt
Rosina Buckland

“Here’s a classic tale of love and rivalry. Two men – Fuwa Banzaemon Shigekatsu and Nagoya Sanza Motoharu – are vying for the charms of a beautiful and alluring courtesan.

Following the kabuki theatre tradition, they enter through the audience on raised walkways, unaware of each other until they reach the stage and their sword hilts suddenly clash together.

Slowly lifting their big straw hats, they recognise each other and prepare for battle, only for the mistress of a neighbouring tea shop (right) to rush out to stop them fighting.

The setting for the action in this print is interesting. It’s taking place in the Yoshiwara pleasure quarter of what was then known as Edo but is now Tokyo. It was a fantasy world where rich men visited courtesans renowned for their singing and dancing skills as well as their more obvious attractions.

There are cherry trees along the back of the scene; these were transplanted to the Yoshiwara every spring so that there were always beautiful trees in bloom.

Kabuki – a lively and colourful combination of dance, drama, acrobatics, special effects and pantomime, with costumes that are particularly fabulous. – had already been central to popular culture in Japanese cities for 300 years by the time this scene was captured.

It was cheap entertainment; an informal fantasy performed during daylight hours with much eating and drinking that you could attend if you couldn’t afford a visit to the pleasure quarter.

The colours are particularly vivid because all our prints have been kept in albums since they came to the museum in 1887 and so, therefore, have never been exposed to damaging light.

These prints were originally produced to be promotional material for the performances and were also circulated around the country, enabling the actors to become celebrities.

Audiences tended to follow their favourite performers and one actor, Sawamura Chojuro V, was actually the greatest heartthrob of the era.

He created something of a scandal just three years after this print was made, however, when he committed suicide at the age of just 31. Details are a bit sketchy but he was apparently on tour with his father – who was also a well-known kabuki actor – when his gambling debts, extravagant lifestyle and inability to live up to his father’s reputation all became too much.”

Rosina Buckland is the senior curator, east and central Asia, at National Museums Scotland

Kabuki Japanese Theatre Prints runs from 4 October until 2 February 2014

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