Wednesday, December 4, 2019

As the curtain is drawn – Monsters & ghosts at a kabuki theatre

In the summer of 2019, I had one of the best weekends of my adult life. In fulfilment of a promise to my eldest, he and I spent a couple of days and nights exploring London. I wanted to take him to see parts of the city that had particular resonance for me as well as visiting places that were new to us both. Part of our plan was to visit the Manga exhibition at the British Museum. Before we went, I wasn’t a particular fan of the art style. To be fair, I’m still not, though I do have a much-increased appreciation and opinion of it. I can also vouch for the fact that the BM can put on a spectacular exhibition – claimed to be the largest and most comprehensive exhibition of the Manga art style ever mounted outside of Japan. Rather than provide a late review for the show, I wanted to pick out a couple of pieces that caught my eye and attention.

The first piece I want to look at is the magnificent Shintomi theatre curtain from 1880. This 17m long masterpiece was created for the newly opened Shintomi kabuki theatre in Tokyo. Its theme is taken from the traditional folklore story of the Night Procession of the Hundred Demons (hyakki yagyō). The faces of the demons, monsters, ghost, and assorted ghouls are modelled on renowned kabuki actors of the day who are show emerging from a bamboo costume chest.

The top edge of the curtain, above the actors, contains the red-dyed acting crests that identified which actor was in the role of which monster. The museum’s information card noted that the central monster, rokurokubi, with the long neck and protruding tongue, was portrayed by Ichikawa Danjūrō IX. While my knowledge of Japanese folklore is clearly imperfect, I am more used to seeing rokurokubi depicted with a long, slender, graceful neck. The artist’s choice of a lined, wrinkly – perhaps even muscular – neck (to my mind) adds an additional level of horror to the character. Directly to the left is a depiction of Onoe Kikugorō V in the guise of the Cat Witch of Okazaki, wearing a sumptuous wig.

The curtain is truly a remarkable artefact, partly (I guess) from the mode of its’ creation. It is recorded that the artist, Kawanabe Kyōsai, completed it in a single four-hour session after drinking several bottles of rice wine. He then used the hemp-palm broom he’d used as a paintbrush to sign it and describe it as ‘a picture done on the spot’ (sekiga). The artist’s inky foot and hand prints are still visible in places on the curtain, leaving a tangible trace of the frenetic activity required to produce it.

This piece was on loan to the Bristish museum from The Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum at Waseda University, Tokyo.

The first part of the title for this post comes from the Bob Dylan song Restless Farewell, from his 1964 album The Times They Are a-Changin'. But, of course, you knew that.