Kabuki is a form of popular dance-drama marked by stylization, elaborate make-up and exaggerated, melodramatic expressions and movements. It is thought of as “bizarre theater” since the word kabuki is believed to derive from kabuku, a verb meaning “to be out of the ordinary.” Kabuki became popular in the yoshiwara (red light) district of Edo (old Tokyo) from the 17th c. From the mid-17th c., the government banned women and children acting in kabuki and all roles were acted by adult males. Kabuki soon stood at the forefront of Japanese pop culture, its actors treated as superstars and their costumes inaugurating new fashions. Folk and historical legends, often involving samurai and their superhuman feats, were common themes in kabuki. Our selection includes works on this theme by great artists, such as Utagawa Kunisada [more on Kunisada] and Utagawa Kuniyoshi  [more on Kuniyoshi].

Utagawa Kunisada (Toyokuni III) (1786-1865)

Kunisada was the most popular, prolific and financially successful ukiyo-e painter of the 19th c. But through most of the 20th c., he has been overshadowed by the popularity of Hiroshige, Hokusai, Kuniyoshi and Utamaro, especially among collectors and critics of Europe and the U.S. Since the 1990s, there has been a re-evalutation of his importance and at present he is considered one of the great ukiyo-e masters of all time. Kunisada’s works a re marked by their dramatic compositions and expressions.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861)

Kuniyoshi was one of the great masters of 19th c. ukiyo-e. He worked in all genres, including kabuki actors, geishas, landscapes, animals, supernatural and mythological themes. His paintings are characterized by bold composition and exuberant design. He also often displays a streak of humor, most clearly seen in his cleverly disguised political satires against the Tokugawa shogunate.