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Kabuki Through the Ages: Iconic Plays and Characters in Ukiyo-e

Written by
Alex Billiar
Published on
August 16, 2023 at 12:29:03 PM PDT August 16, 2023 at 12:29:03 PM PDTth, August 16, 2023 at 12:29:03 PM PDT

Since the 17th century, kabuki theater has established itself as an integral piece of Japanese art and culture. From tales of dashing heroes like Sukeroku to those of vigilantes and thieves like Sanmon Gosan no Kiri, kabuki theater presents a diverse range of characters and personalities that appeal to audiences across the ages. Many of these characters and dramas have experienced small changes, both in story and appearance, however they often retain key characteristics that remain visible on stage and in prints. From the kumadori (stage makeup) to the actors’ crests and the iconic costumes, kabuki has a type of visual language that can be traced across the various dramas, characters, and their ukiyo-e depictions throughout the centuries.

We invite you to enjoy a selection of kabuki dramas and characters that have made their mark on the kabuki stage over the past 400 years.

Shibaraku: A Kabuki Icon

While there are many kabuki dramas, none seem to be more striking nor iconic than that of Shibaraku. Beginning with the vile lord Kiyohara no Takehira holding a prince and princess prisoner at the Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine. Although they plead to delay the execution, Takehira refuses and instead summons the ruthless warrior Narita Goro to his aid. As Takehira and his underlings prepare for the execution, celebrating with dancing and alcohol, a voice is heard from the hanamichi (walkway) shouting “shibaraku!” (or “stop right there!”). This voice belongs to Kamakura Gongoro Kagemasa, a powerful warrior who has come to the rescue of the prisoners. Although Takehira’s minions attempt to fight him, Gongoro is far superior and fends them off, forcing Takehira to not only release the prisoners but also return a stolen sword to the captive prince. While Shibaraku is its own standalone drama, this scene also appears in many kaomise, or opening-of-the-season productions since the early 18th century, typically worked into the plot to accommodate the tradition.

Identifiable by the hulking crimson costume and angular white head pieces worn by the primary protagonist, the Shibaraku scene has been a common subject of Japanese woodblock prints. While early ukiyo-e artists like Katsukawa Shunsho (1726 -1792) often depicted kabuki actors in Shibaraku scenes, so did later artists, such as Toyokuni III (1786 - 1864). In the pieces “Ichikawa Danjuro in a Shibaraku Scene” from 1850 and “Shibuya: Danjuro as Konnomaru” from 1852, Toyokuni III show two vastly different compositions. The former features almost the entirety of the actor’s body and costume while the latter focuses more on the face and features a landscape background. These two prints represent the diverse ways in which the Shibaraku scene was depicted, even in a similar time period by the same artist. In the late 20th century, this scene has similarly been portrayed by artists such as Yoshitoshi Mori (1898 - 1992), a pioneer of the Sosaku Hanga (creative print) movement. In his 1974 piece “Shibaraku,” the hero of Shibaraku is depicted, although in a slightly lighter garb, still retaining his white headwear, imposing sword, and elaborate kumadori. However, unlike the other two which are stylistically similar, this piece features a contorted figure, representing the expressive style of Mori as well as the flamboyance of the protagonist.

(Left) Toyokuni III. “Ichikawa Danjuro in a Shibaraku Scene.” 1850. Woodblock print. (Center) Toyokuni III (Kunisada). “Shibuya: Danjuro as Konnomaru.” 1852. Woodblock Print. (Right) Yoshitoshi Mori. “Shibaraku.” 1974. Woodblock Print.

Sukeroku: A Hero Across Eras

One of the most well-known and commonly performed dramas, Sukeroku is a tale of a lone hero competing against his villainous foe, both for love and his prized family possession. Considered a brazen yet charming man, Sukeroku, or Soga no Goro, has been tasked with avenging his dead father. However, he often finds himself preoccupied with fights, his romance with the courtesan Agemaki, and the search for his family’s stolen sword. Although Agemaki finds herself infatuated with Sukeroku, a samurai named Ikyu finds himself in love with Agemaki. Sukeroku sees Ikyu as the potential thief of the stolen sword, and constantly berates and teases Ikyu in order to goad him into drawing his blade. Although unsuccessful at first, Sukeroku is eventually able to trick Ikyu into drawing his sword, confirming that it is indeed his and that Ikyu killed his father. With this information, Sukeroku is able to challenge the thief and regain his sword, avenging his father in the process.

Considered one of the most popular kabuki dramas, Sukeroku is inseparable from Japanese woodblock prints. Featured in works spanning from the 17th century to today, it is one of the most visually iconic dramas. Sukeroku is typically identifiable by his sleek black kimono and his purple headband, tied fashionably to the side. This visual trend can be seen in both Kunisada’s (Toyokuni III) 1834 print “Courtesan Agemaki, Sukeroku, and Ikyu'' and Kunichika’s (1835 - 1900) 1890 print “Miuraya Scene: Sukeroku and Courtesan Agemaki.” Although designed almost 60 years apart, these two pieces have almost identical triptych compositions, featuring Agemaki on the left, Ikyu on the right, and Sukeroku in the center with his red and black costume on. The difference in appearance of these two pieces, however, speaks to the material differences within their era. Kunisada’s piece does show more fading due to the vegetable dyes while Kunichika’s piece is more vivid due to its aniline dyes, the visual similarities display the lasting popularity of Sukeroku, both on the stage and in the visual arts.

(Left) Kunisada (Toyokuni III). “Courtesan Agemaki, Sukeroku, and Ikyu” from the seriesScenes from Kabuki Plays. 1834. Woodblock Print. (Right) Kunichika. “Miuraya Scene: Sukeroku and Courtesan Agemaki” from the series Kabuki Plays. 1890. Woodblock Print.

Ishikawa Goemon: Same Character Different Style

Some famous plays have several variations. This may happen due to plot changes, removal of scenes, or affiliations with specific actors or theaters. Due to this, characters can show up in several different kabuki plays. One character who appears in multiple different dramas is Ishikawa Goemon, the legendary mercenary from Japanese folklore. A thief and vigilante, Goemon is known for walking the line between criminal and hero. Easily identified by his stern exterior and his black costume, he has shown up in several kabuki dramas, most notably Sanmon Gosan no Kiri. From the 1700s to today, Goemon has proven relevant throughout several centuries of woodblock prints.

A range of artistic depictions of Ishikawa Goemon can be seen in the following pieces by Hokushu (1808 - 1832), Toyokuni III, and Kokei (1946 - Present). Although each of these pieces depict the storied character, facing to the viewer’s left while in his costume, they all offer a distinct interpretation. Between Hokushu’s 1826 example, “Kabuki Actor Nakamura Utaemon III as Ishikawa Goemon at the Okehazama Battle,” and Toyokuni III’s 1862 print “Kabuki Actor Nakamura Shikan IV as Ishikawa Goemon,” there remains the difference in color due to the uses of vegetable and aniline dyes respectively. The two pieces also differ slightly in composition, as Hokushu’s image is purely a portrait while Toyokuni III’s is more heavily embellished on a battledore paddle. Furthermore, Kokei’s 1993 piece, “Kataoka Nizaemon XIII as Ishikawa Goemon”, although similar in composition and pose to the other two, is stylized differently, the image more pale, the proportions slightly exaggerated, and a larger emphasis put on minute lines and details. These changes show a new interpretation of the familiar image, with an image in line with the contemporary nature of the artist and his audience.

(Left) Hokushu. “Kabuki Actor Nakamura Utaemon III as Ishikawa Goemon at the Okehazama Battle.” 1826. Woodblock Print. (Center) Toyokuni III (Kunisada). “Kabuki Actor Nakamura Shikan IV as Ishikawa Goemon.” 1862. Woodblock Print. (Right) Kokei. “Kataoka Nizaemon XIII as Ishikawa Goemon” from the series Bust Portraits IX. 1993. Woodblock Print

Kabuki theater is a fusion of visual and narrative storytelling, a resilient tradition in Japanese culture. However, even with this rigidity and longevity, the visual manifestation of kabuki in ukiyo-e has evolved over time. To explore more examples of prints like these, you can view them in our exhibition, "Kabuki Through the Ages: Iconic Plays and Characters in Ukiyo-e."

Selected Bibliography

Clark, Timothy, Osamu Ueda, Donald Jenkins, and Naomi Noble Richard. The Actor’s Image: Print Makers of the Katsukawa School. Chicago, IL: The Art Institute of Chicago, 1994.
Link, Howard A. The Theatrical Prints of the Torii Masters: A Selection of Seventeenth and Eighteenth-century Ukiyo-e. Tokyo: Honolulu Academy of Arts and Riccar Art Museum, 1977.
Toshio, Kawatake, Iwate Akira, Translated by Helen V. Kay. Kabuki. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books, 1984.
Watanabe, Hisao, Edited by Jeff Blair. “Sukeroku”, Kabuki 21, Last Accessed August 13, 2023. https://www.kabuki21.com/sukeroku.php
“Shibaraku”, Kabuki 21, Last Accessed August 13, 2023. https://www.kabuki21.com/shibaraku.php
“Ishikawa Goemon”, Kabuki 21, Last Accessed August 13, 2023. https://www.kabuki21.com/goemon.php