Kabuki stars shine again at the NGA

NOT to be outdone by the Art Gallery of New South Wales’s current exhibition, “Theatre of dreams, theatre of play”, which focuses on the refined Japanese theatre forms of nō and kyōgen, the National Gallery of Australia has today launched its own Japanese exhibition.

Ichikawa Sumizo VI as Shirai Gonpachi in ‘The floating world’s pattern and matching lightning bolts’ 1926

Ichikawa Sumizo VI as Shirai Gonpachi in ‘The floating world’s pattern and matching lightning bolts’ 1926

“Stars of the Tokyo stage: Natori Shunsen’s kabuki actor prints” is drawn entirely from the NGA’s collection and turns its attention onto the exciting world of Japan’s Kabuki theatre through actor portraits created by artist Natori Shunsen (1886–1960) in the 1920s and 30s.

A selection of spectacular Kabuki robes from the NGA collection further illustrates the extravagance of the theatrical form.

Kabuki? It’s the extraordinarily dynamic and not so refined theatre form that still draws huge crowds from the general public in Japan.

Ichikawa Sadanji II as Narukami in ‘Narukami’ 1926

Ichikawa Sadanji II as Narukami in ‘Narukami’ 1926

I’ve always loved the Kabuki – the larger-than-life stories (though drawn from real life) of murder, love-suicides, plots gone wrong and mass revenge performed by larger-than-life actors, many of whom have had their craft down handed down to them over generations.

I love the dramatic entrances, the face-painting, the exquisite female impersonation, the arresting, static poses that the actors strike, and best of all – it’s like going to a football match here – the fact that audience members shout from the stalls and actively barracked for their favourite actors.

And those actors are still adored, just like the ones in the NGA show.

Nakamura Utaemon V as Yodogimi in ‘A sinking moon over the lonely castle where the cuckoo cries’ 1926

Nakamura Utaemon V as Yodogimi in ‘A sinking moon over the lonely castle where the cuckoo cries’ 1926

An inspiration to artists for centuries, kabuki draws on Japan’s rich folklore, literature and history, as well as violent, romantic and scandalous events, to present lavish dramatic performances. Kabuki actors – the movie stars of their day – were wildly popular for flamboyant portrayals, extraordinary characters and colourful personal lives. Shunsen’s prints provide a fascinating glimpse into this glamorous world, while demonstrating consummate mastery of traditional Japanese printmaking techniques.

“Stars of the Tokyo stage” explores kabuki and modern Japanese printmaking in the context of the astounding changes taking place in Tokyo as the 20th century unfolded. The exhibition is accompanied by a richly illustrated catalogue and primary and secondary education resources are available for teachers too.

It’s a knockout show.

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