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Report on the talk ‘Kabuki’s Nineteenth Century: Stage and Print in Early Modern Edo’

Dr Jonathan Zwicker recently published his book, Kabuki’s Nineteenth Century: Stage and Print in Early Modern Edo (Oxford University Press, 2023). In his work, he highlights a local private library in Tsumago, situated in the south-eastern part of Nagano. Tsumago is notable for being a post town on the Nakasendō, one of the five main routes during the Edo period that connected Edo (now Tokyo) to Kyoto. Unfortunately, I missed Dr Zwicker’s lecture on his new book for the January edition of the Sainsbury Institute’s Third Thursday Lecture due to my travels in Japan, but I was able to catch up with his recording while in Nagawamachi in Nagano, another post town on the Nakasendō, a delightful coincidence that enhanced my appreciation of his insights.

Kabuki was the leading form of theatre and entertainment in Japan. However, during the 19th century, especially in Edo, kabuki scripts were rarely circulated as written texts. Some fragmented texts from theatre staff do exist in collections, yet preserving authentic textual materials from that period remains a significant challenge. In the Kamigata region, covering Kyoto and Osaka, kabuki theatre was also vibrant, occasionally producing novels based on kabuki scripts (eiri nehon), which served more as reading material than actual stage scripts. The nature of the theatre was dynamic, with performances continuously evolving in response to the actors’ interpretations and the audience’s reactions, making it a formidable task to capture the authentic experience of 19th century kabuki.

However, kabuki theatre also gave rise to a variety of ephemeral materials, including theatre programmes, actor prints, and popular novels related to kabuki themes. Dr Zwicker’s lecture provided a thorough examination of the complex interplay between live performances, printed materials, the perspectives of creators, and audience consumption, offering a detailed analysis of these interconnected aspects.

Shikitei Sanba (1776-1822) and Utagawa Tokyoni I (1769-1825), Shadows of Kabuki Play by Magic Lantern (Sono utsushi-e kabuki no omokage), published in 1811. Ebi collection, Ebi1454

In his talk, Dr Zwicker primarily focused on exploring the interplay between performance and printed media, drawing from Chapter 5, ‘Individuality in an Age of Reproduction’ (pp. 179-229), of his recently published book. He delved into how the 1811 publication ‘Shadows of Kabuki Play by Magic Lantern’ by Shikitei Sanba (1776-1822) and Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) encapsulated various cultural motifs from the play, demonstrating the transition of these elements into print. The term ‘magic lantern’ (utsushi-e in Japanese)[1], which was introduced to Japan in the late 18th century, serves as a metaphor in the title, suggesting that printed materials can offer a condensed yet impactful representation of key scenes.

In his lecture, Dr Zwicker illuminated the use of diverse cultural imagery in ‘Shadows of Kabuki Play by Magic Lantern’, such as styles akin to kabuki programmes (banzuke) to portray crucial scenes from the play. He delved into how the publication employed visual codes to narrate its story, drawing on the audience’s existing knowledge of kabuki. An example he provided was the character Hōkaibō, whose representation, though not immediately clear, was identifiable by specific coded elements like the character [法 hō] on the sleeves.

Utagawa Toyokuni I, A Quick Guide to Actor Likeness (Yakusha nigao hayageiko), 1817, Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University, hayBK03-0802

Dr Zwicker also discussed the depiction of actors’ likenesses, a practice that emerged in the late 18th century and was honed by artists from the Katsukawa school, including Ippitsusai Bunchō and some from the Torii school (as detailed in Muto Junko’s article[2]). By the 1790s, Utagawa School artist Toyokuni I, the illustrator behind ‘Shadows of Kabuki Play’, had crafted a significant series of actor portraits, pioneering actor print production. A notable point in Dr Zwicker’s discussion was Toyokuni I’s ‘A Quick Guide to Actor Likeness’ (Yakusha nigao hayageiko), which showcased the distinct features (kuse) of actors. Toyokuni I opted to capture the essence of actors through their distinctive traits rather than realistic portrayals, a method that allowed those familiar with these visual codes to easily identify the characters, thus deepening their connection to the prints.

Moreover, Dr Zwicker touched upon the significance of ‘Physiognomy (ninsōgaki)’ in both live performances and printed media, noting that certain physical features, like a distinctive mole, acted as narrative elements in kabuki and joruri puppet plays. His observations indicate that the extensive dissemination of actor likenesses in print could affect storytelling, presenting an engaging topic for future investigation. A comparison of the use of physiognomy in kabuki from the 18th to the 19th century could reveal the influence of actor prints and their likenesses on 19th-century kabuki narratives.

Finally, Dr Zwicker highlighted the Hayashi Library in Tsumago as a tangible example to illustrate the local engagement with kabuki plays. As mentioned earlier, Tsumago is not at the heart of Japan, yet residents from this region, known for its heavy winter snow, would often travel to Edo as seasonal migrant workers. Suzuki Toshiyuki has published a catalogue of its books[3], but the Hayashi Library has not been fully digitised, posing challenges to accessibility.  This collection acts like a time capsule, offering insights into how local communities, distant from urban centres, engaged with kabuki through printed media, thereby bridging geographical gaps.

In his new book, ‘Kabuki’s Nineteenth Century’, Dr Zwicker begins the first chapter by beautifully referencing Shimazaki Toson’s ‘Before the Dawn’, a novel associated with the Tsumago region. This reference effectively highlights the regional consumption of kabuki, bringing the local experience vividly to life.

This talk shed light on the nuanced relationship between kabuki theatre and its printed interpretations, revealing the depth of cultural and visual literacy required to fully appreciate these art forms.

From Nagawamachi, Nagano

Ryoko Matsuba

Lecturer in Japanese Digital Arts and Humanities, Sainsbury Institute


[1] For further details on utsushi-e, a comprehensive explanation can be found in the work of Kusahara Machiko at Waseda University: https://www.f.waseda.jp/kusahara/Utsushi-e/What_Is_Utsushi-e.html (accessed 4 Feb 2024).

[2] Muto Junko, ‘Shoki torii-ha no yakusha nigao’ from the book Shoki ukiyo-e to kabuki, Kasama shoin: Tokyo, 2014, pp.  34-52

[3] Suzuki Toshiyuki, 近世後期における書物・草紙等の出版・流通・享受についての研究 木曽妻籠林家蔵書、及び、木曽上松臨川寺所蔵板木の調査を中心に 研究報告書 (Kinsei k ōki niokeru shomotsu・ sōushi nado no shuppan・ryūtsū・kyōju ni tsuite no kenkyū Kiso Tsumago Hayashi-ke zōsho, oyobi, Kiso agematsu rinsenji shozō hangi no chōsa o chūshin ni Kenkyū hōkokusho), Lab 3833, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University: Toyo, 1996.