Between cascades of black hair, the actor Ichikawa Danshiro IV pulls his eyebrows together, flares his nostrils, and contorts his mouth into a grimace. The red and blue makeup, known as kumadori, emphasizes the intensity of his contorted expression, while his tensed, splayed fingers extend from the left edge of the paper to punctuate the dramatic pause of the mie–the pose held at the pinnacle of emotion and drama during a kabuki scene. In the play at hand, Kagekiyo, this moment comes just before the imprisoned Heike warrior Kagekiyo escapes his captors. Kokei captures the glamour and drama of this moment through bold lines, shimmering mica, and tangible intensity in the portrait above. As Danshiro IV’s left hand steadies the wooden beam – his means of the escape – Kokei savors the anticipation of freedom. Long after the curtains close and the lights rise in the theater, Kokei offers a window into the extravagant costumes, enduring tales, and emphatic actors of the kabuki stage through his actor portraits.
Kokei Tsuruya. "Ichikawa Danshiro IV as Akushichibyoe Kagekiyo." 1995. Woodblock print. Ronin Gallery.
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. Between 1974 and 1975, he completed 10 prints in the style of the 18th-century ukiyo-e master Sharaku, but these prints received little recognition. Discouraged, Kokei pivoted subject matter and produced a series depicting eight kinds of hell. During a private showing at a gallery in Ginza, this series caught the eye of Takeomi Nagayama, the president of the Shochiku Company, which owned the Kabuki-za (Tokyo’s premier kabuki theater), 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 his designs for two year, and later, 15-month periods. While the early years of Kokei’s collaboration with the Kabuki-za saw few sales, the partnership with the theater ultimately resulted in enormous success for the artist. As Kokei found inspiration on stage at the Kabuki-za and in the ukiyo-e tradition, he enlivened the yakusha-e (actor print) genre for a contemporary generation of actors and audiences.
Kokei Tsuruya, "Ichikawa Ennosuke III as Kiyohime Transforming into a Serpent," from the series Bust Portraits IV. 1984. Woodblock print. Ronin Gallery.
Kokei’s prints not only captured the drama of the Kabuki theater, but also reflected its cycles – of rotating performances, famous roles, and storied lines of actors. In fact, Kokei’s pattern of production aligned with the 25-day runs of performances at the Kabuki-za. He would begin each process with the rehearsal before opening day. After deciding upon an actor and play ahead of time, he used the rehearsal to carefully observe the actor and select a particular moment to depict. Over the next three days, he used these mental observations to create his design. After four days of carving, he spent three days on printing, experimenting with color and completing the set number of impressions. Once the edition was completed, he would destroy the blocks. As a young print collector, Kokei didn’t like to see other artists’ wood blocks for sale. By methodically destroying his own blocks, he both put his mind at ease and ensured the limited edition status of his designs necessitated by his contract with the Kabuki-za. The completed prints were then sold at the Kabuki-za for the following 15 days (until the end of the performance). Some of the impressions were sent to subscribing members of his print club. In the three days before the premiere of the next play, Kokei decided which actor and role would take center stage in his next design.
Kokei Tsuruya. "Snow," from the play Sagi Musume. 1992. Woodblock print. Ronin Gallery.
Kokei intertwined tradition and innovation not only in his designs, but also through his choice of printmaking materials. Inspired by the thin paper of ukiyo-e and a desire for a technical challenge, Kokei printed many of his portraits upon ganpi paper. This exceptionally thin Japanese paper is made from the ganpi bush, whose thin fibers render the paper slightly translucent with a faint brown hue. For his blocks, Kokei chose Silver Magnolia wood rather than the harder Cherry wood favored for ukiyo-e prints. While Cherry provided the necessary durability for large editions of ukiyo-e, Kokei’s small editions allowed him to prioritize ease of carving over durability. While the depicted actor’s role dictated many color choices, Kokei experimented with both vivid shades and monochrome designs throughout his many actor prints. In 1985, he began to embellish his prints with mica, adding a heightened luxury to his designs.
Kokei Tsuruya. "Nakamura Kichiemon II as Matsuomaru," from the series Bust Portraits IV. 1985. Woodblock print. Ronin Gallery.
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 a 2019 interview with the Pacific Asia Museum, he described how these portraits allowed him to keep learning, to keep developing his skill as an artist. 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. Drawing inspiration each artist’s shini-e (funerary portraits) and the spirit of their respective oeuvres, Kokei captures edo-period luminaries in his distinctive style of portraiture. As of March 2021, he has completed portraits of Hokusai, Kuniyoshi, Hiroshige, and Kunisada.
Kokei’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.
This March, Ronin Gallery explores the theatrical world of Kokei in Kokei Tsuryuya: Modern Master of Kabuki Prints. Visit the exhibition here.