From the kabuki play Shiranami Gonin Otoko (Aoto Zoshi Hana no Nishiki-e), performed at the Kabuki-za.
About the artist
Kokei Tsuruya holds a unique place among Japan’s contemporary woodblock print artists. Emotionally charged, bold and vividly rendered, his kabuki portraits blend the spirit of ukiyo-e with a distinctly modern angle. With expressive faces and exaggerated gestures, contemporary stars of the kabuki stage spring from the artist’s imagination, bold against delicate sheets of ganpi paper. As Kokei found inspiration in the actor prints of the Edo period, he also reinvigorated the symbiotic relationship between the woodblock print and the kabuki theater through his twenty-two year partnership with the Kabuki-za, Tokyo’s premier kabuki theater.
Born in 1946 in Chigasaki, Kanagawa prefecture as Mitsui Gen, Kokei Tsuruya was raised in Shinjuku ward of Tokyo. Both his father and grandfather worked as professional artists, yet Kokei set off on a different path. Kokei explored woodblock carving as a pastime and collected ukiyo-e, but spent his early adulthood pursuing a corporate career. That is, until the mid-1970s. Profoundly inspired by a Kabuki performance, he soon traded office life for the artist’s workshop and began to design actor portraits. Around this time, Kokei's work caught the eye of Takeomi Nagayama, the president of the Shochiku Company, which owned the Kabuki-za, and a symbiotic relationship between artist and theater blossomed. Between 1978 and 2000, Kokei produced around 12 limited edition designs annually, each of which was sold during the production of the play depicted. Kokei completed each print from start to finish – designing, carving, inking, printing, and, ultimately, destroying each block himself. These limited-edition prints were to be sold specifically at the theater. Beginning in May of 1985, members of the “Kokei-kai,” could sign up to purchase Kokei Tsuruya's designs for two year, and later, 15-month periods.
In 2000, after twenty-two years of actor prints, Kokei looked beyond the stage and the woodblock print. Over the next two decades, he developed a robust portfolio of self-portraits across different mediums. In 2017, Kokei returned to the woodblock print with his ongoing project Banzai Ukiyoe-ha Gosugata (Long Live the Five Figures of Ukiyo-e). These portraits breathe life into the ukiyo-e masters that inspired Kokei’s passion for the art form. Kokei Tsuruya’s work can be found in numerous institutions such as the British Museum, Minneapolis Institute of Art, Pacific Asia Museum, Yale University Art Gallery, and the Honolulu Museum of Art. In 2019, the Pacific Asia Museum at the University of Southern California held the retrospective Tsuruya Kokei: Modern Kabuki Prints Revised & Revisited.