The 68th feature exhibition

Animals in kabuki plays
June 5 (Tue), 2018 – September 2 (Sun), 2018

This museum exhibits ukiyo-e paintings produced in Osaka in the Edo period. Most of the ukiyo-e paintings made in Osaka were portraits of kabuki actors. They depict kabuki actors playing or striking a pose (distinctive element of kabuki performance).

In kabuki plays male actors play both female and male characters. Actors also play non-human characters, for example, a character named Kuzu-no-ha in Ashiya Doman ouchi kagami is actually a fox that has been transforming into a human. It is usual that an animal plays an essential role in a story, as a boar in Kanadehon chushingura.

In this feature exhibition, we focus on animals appear in kabuki plays. Among the woodblock prints and paintings that are exhibited here are of horses that are necessary for military commanders, rats that characters transform into by witchcraft. Please enjoy charming animals playing a role in kabuki plays.

“Yamato-uta taketori monogatari”,  by Kunihiro

“Yamato-uta taketori monogatari”, by Kunihiro

Animals in kabuki plays

There are variety of animals appear in kabuki plays. They need to appear in accordance with the progress of the play, so no real animal is used, instead actors play in disguise as a cow or a horse or a stage prop is used.

When playing a horse, there are two ways. One is that two men get into the horse-shaped prop and play its four legs and actually moves with an actor on the prop horse’s back. The other is to use ‘honihoro’, a prop worn mainly by a child actor when the scene is ‘tomi[1]’. ‘Honihoro’ is a horse-head-shaped prop, the actor attach ‘honihoro’ on his front and his own legs play the horse’s legs.

A technique called ‘sashigane’ is used in kabuki plays. ‘Sashigane’ is a long stick with a prop animal (a butterfly or bird) attached at the end. ‘Kurogo[2]’ or ‘koken[3]’ holds the ‘sashigane’ and moves it as if it is real. Therefore the term ‘sashigane’ has come to mean to manipulate a person from behind.

In some ukiyo-e, actors’ legs and sashigane are depicted as is, but in most ukiyo-e, it is depicted as real animals.

See the animals’ performances in ukiyo-e.

[1]Tomi:a techinique using perspective that creates a distant view by replacing adult actors with children actors.
[2]Kurogo:onstage assistant who is dressed in all black from head to toe.
[3]Koken:onstage assistant but unlike kurogo he shows his face and in some cases are dressed like an actor with a wig and make-up.

Animals as symbols

In Japanese poetry, there is a category of words called ‘utamakura’. Each ‘utamakura’ words have two meanings, one is the names of places and the other is natural features. Like ‘utamakura’, in kabuki there are words that have two meanings involving animals.

For example, the word ‘karajishi botan’ symbolizes good omen by combining a lion (karajishi), king of animals, and peony (botan), a symbol of wealth and nobility. When ‘karajishi botan’ is used for the costume of a courtesan, it shows that she is of the highest rank.

The description of doves (‘hato’ in Japanese) in ukiyo-e ‘Ichinotani futaba gunki’ is a family crest of Kumagai Jiro Naozane (aka hato-hachi) and at the same time it symbolizes the god of victory.

Furthermore, according to the ‘Heike Monogatari’, the nue, legendary monster, has the face of monkey, the body of raccoon dog, the limbs of tiger and the tail of snake. The image of the nue continues to be followed in kabuki plays and depicted in ukiyo-e.

Enjoy the descriptions of images of animals.

Animals that transform

Some of the kabuki plays have imaginative views of the world and animals play an important role in that fantasy. In many stories animals transform into human beings in order to express their affection.

In ‘Ashiya Doman ouchi kagami’, a fox transforms into a human being and returns a courtesy. In ‘Yoshitsune senbon zakura’, the main character is a child fox that is searching for its parent that has been made into a drum. There are some cases that a human being transforms into an animal out of single-mindedness. In ‘Honcho Junishiko’, princess Yaegaki let herself possessed by a fox spirit and runs on frozen lake to alert the danger and save her loving fiancée.

In some stories human beings transform using witchcraft. In ‘Meiboku sendai hagi’, Niki Danjo creeps into a house in disguise as a rat to get the letter back which is evidence against him. A character that becomes both human and animal must have pleased the audience at the time with the fantastic performance.

Matsumoto Koshiro V (Meiwa 1 – Tempo 9, 1764 – 1838)

Son of Matsumoto Koshiro IV, first stage appearance was in 1770 (Meiwa 7) under the name of Ichikawa Sumizo. He received the name of Ichikawa Komazo III in 1772 (Anei 1). Growing from child actor into adolescent actor, he became young adult male-role actor around Tenmei 3. After performing as wagoto actor (gentle style), he gradually got a reputation as a villain actor.

He received the name of Matsumoto Koshiro V in 1801 (Kyowa 1). He appeared in theatres in Osaka in 1820 (Bunsei 3), and in Bunsei 4 he played in ‘Hagi wa sendai na wa Matsumoto’ and ‘Kyoshi Hanakawado’, performed in theatures in Dotombori and Kyoto. He came back to Osaka in 1830 (Tempo 1) and played the role of Ikyu in ‘Sukeroku yukarino Edo zakura’, in Kyoto and Osaka. He was popular not only in Edo but also in Kamigata (around Osaka area) kabuki.

Matsumoto Koshiro V had another name ‘Hanataka (high nose) Koshiro’, the distinctive feature was deformed in ukiyo-e paintings. With that unique feature, he made a hit in the part of Niki Danjo in ‘Meiboku sendai hagi’. He remained on stage after the age of 70, very old for those days, and in May Tempo 9, he fell during performing on stage and died.