Kabuki Theatre in Edo

23.11.2010 to 13.03.2011

Kabuki theatre has been the most popular indigenous theatre form in Japan since the late 17th century. Accompanied by music, the all-male group of actors perform a rich combination of dialogue, song and dance that even encompasses acrobatics, action-packed heroic tales, tragic love stories and burlesque comedies. By the 19th century, the best loved actors and scenes from the most successful plays had quickly become part of an elaborate marketing system that was in part fuelled by the proliferation of affordable woodcut prints which drew on the cult status of the stars they depicted.

One of the high points in the theatre calendar was the wave of premières marking the season's opening, held annually in the eleventh month of the moon calendar, during which it was customary for a theatre's entire ensemble to present a play to the fans. This event is known as 'kaomise', which literally means 'the showing of faces' and took its name from the fact that all stars employed for the coming season presented themselves to the public. These stars, whose stage names were largely passed on from generation to generation, tended to select particularly dramatic works for this event. An example of one such piece is the drama 'Shibaraku' (which translates as 'Just a Moment!').

Printed scenes of individual kaomise performances and their sets, as well as depictions of crowds assembled in front of a theatre in Edo and the exciting atmosphere inside the theatre itself are on display in the exhibition and supplement the many sheets that take individual actors as their subject. In the early 19th century master woodcut printmakers offered purchasers of their sheets an insight into events backstage, otherwise inaccessible to the usual theatre-goer, with exclusive and intimate pictures of the stars of this form of commercial entertainment that has remained popular to this day.