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Hokusai Exhibition Brings Edo-Era Performing Arts to Life

The Sumida Hokusai Museum in Tokyo is staging the theater life of the Edo era in its latest exhibition of acclaimed illustrator, Katsushika Hokusai.



Web banner of the Hokusai exhibition at the Sumida Hokusai Museum

Theater, Dance, Music — Enjoy the Edo Performing Arts with Hokusai is the Spring special exhibition at The Sumida Hokusai Museum, which will run until May 26. It will be held in two terms. The first term continues until April 21. A number of like-for-like substitutions will be made prior to the second term, commencing on April 23.

Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) was apprenticed at the age of 19 to the Katsukawa Shunsho, from the Katsukawa school, a school of ukiyo-e art. Shunsho focused on depictions of kabuki actors and other theater-based scenes. It was with theater-based subject matter that Hokusai began his illustrious career. 

Edo Comes to Life

The most famous entertainment area of the Edo era (1603-1868) is the Asakusa district that borders the West bank of the Sumida River. The exhibition reminds us that Asakusa had several forerunners as a theater precinct, and did not become the preeminent theater district of the capital until 1842, in the Edo era's final decades. Prior to this time, Sakai-cho and Fukiya-cho (presently Nihonbashi and Ningyocho) were the center of theater life, as well as Kobiki-cho (now the eastern Ginza district, where the Kabukiza theater is located).

The relocation of theater out of central Tokyo occurred as a part of the Tenpo reforms carried out by the Tokugawa shogunate. The shogunate sought to impose a culture of frugality upon the town people, for both economic and social reasons. The closure of many theaters in central Tokyo was a regrettable result.

This relocation was preceded in 1657 by a similar transfer of the Yoshiwara pleasure quarters out of the same neighborhoods of Ningyocho and Nihonbashi to Asakusa. Impact on public morality from central Tokyo locations was again a dominant rationale. 

"Perspective Picture: A Grand Kabuki Performance in the Eastern Capital," Katsushika Hokusai, The Sumida Hokusai Museum (1st term)

Lost Theaters and Theater Districts

In Perspective Picture: A Grand Kabuki Performance in the Eastern Capital and The Fine Views of the Eastern Capital at a Glance, the scenes are from theater districts that largely no longer exist. The former depicts the interior of the Ichimura-za theater in the former Fukiya-cho (Ningyocho). It provides an illuminating pictorial record of late 18th-century theaters. Lanterns hang down from the ceiling decorated with actors' crests. Seating is provided even on the sides of the stage itself. 

Fine Views of the Eastern Capital at a Glance is from a theater in Sakai-cho (Nihonbashi). Unusually, the actors are shown from the back. The composition highlights the patrons, who are so crammed as to resemble the mosh pit of a modern-day rock concert.

"Sakai-cho, from the Fine Views of the Eastern Capital at a Glance. Vol. 2," Katsushika Hokusai, The Sumida Hokusai Museum (all terms)

Portraiture of the Artistic World

The main revenue source for the Katsukawa school came from portraiture. An example of actor portraiture by Hokusai is Segawa Kikunojo III as a Shirabyoshi. It was produced in 1783, four years into his apprenticeship. He was 23 years old. During the second term of Theater, Dance, Music, it will be publicly exhibited for the first time. 

"Segawa Kikunojo III as a Shirabyoshi," Katsushika Hokusai, The Sumida Hokusai Museum (2nd term)

At the age of 35, Hokusai left the Katsukawa school but still remained highly involved in the theater world. He created many surimono, which are privately commissioned prints. They were produced to commemorate recitals or as announcements of the succession of coveted stage names that are so characteristic of the kabuki world. The prints are quite unique. One half contains the illustration and the other half text. The paper is then folded in half, and then into thirds. The examples on display contain both illustrations and text, which is rare. Over time, the text halves of many surimono have been discarded. 

"Dance in the Japanese Room," Katsushika Hokusai, The Sumida Hokusai Museum (2nd term)

Manuals for the Townsfolk

Hokusai was essentially a man of the people, so it should not surprise that the exhibition contains illustrated manuals that bring the theater world to the townsfolk. A staple of the theater was joruri chanting, a form of chant that was used for the script of bunraku puppet drama. It was originally accompanied by the four-string biwa (Japanese lute). However, the chanting became more complex when the Okinawan three-stringed shamisen became the preferred instrument of accompaniment. 

Joruri chanting became popular with local people, inspiring many amateur participants. The Scene of San'kichi Being Impolite to Shigenoi, Koinyobo Somewake Tazuna is a page out of a practice book used by joruri enthusiasts who took lessons in that art form.

"The Scene of San'kichi Being Impolite to Shigenoi, Koinyobo Somewake Tazuna," from the "Picture Book with Mixed Verses on Joruri," Illustrated, Katsushika Hokusai, the Sumida Hokusai Museum (1st term)

Also included in the exhibition is a series of illustrated dance manuals. They set out the movements required to perform specific dances. The double-page spread of The Bad Guy Dance shows a total of seven actions with explanatory notations. 

"The Bad Guy Dance from the Dance Instruction Manual," Katsushika Hokusai, The Sumida Hokusai Museum (all terms)

Pictorial Records of the Edo era

Hokusai is well known for his depictions of people dancing. One of the most well-known of these dance styles was called the Sparrow dance, in which dancers literally imitated the movements of sparrows. It is believed to have been originated by quarriers in the Tohoku region. The brush-drawn painting of the sparrow dance procession, included in the exhibition, was completed when Hokusai was 80, more than 60 years after some of the earlier exhibited works. 

"Sparrow Dance," Katsushika Hokusai, The Sumida Hokusai Museum (1st term)

Hokusai never fails to astound. Through the sheer breadth of his clientele, from the ruling class of Japan to the most common of town folk, his prolific output of illustrations comprises an invaluable pictorial record of Edo-era life. Theater, dance, and music are three more of the era's components from which so much can be appreciated and enjoyed through Hokusai's work. 


Author: Paul de Vries

Paul de Vries is an Australian writer and educator based in Japan.