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Reviewed by:
  • Heroes of the Kabuki Stage
  • Holly A. Blumner
Heroes of the Kabuki Stage. By Arendie and Henk Herwig. Amsterdam: Hotei Publishing, KIT Publishers, 2004. 359 pp. 280 color illustrations. Cloth $130.00.

In the preface to Heroes of the Kabuki Stage, the authors write, "Our motivation in writing this book is to share the information we have gathered with other collectors whose only connection to the world of kabuki are the prints in their collection"(p. 7). The book accomplishes that goal and more by providing a [End Page 210] theatrical context for woodblock prints. Of interest to both print collectors and those approaching the topic from a theatrical perspective, this volume stands at the crossroads of art and theatre.

This coffee-table-sized book is composed of three parts: two essays and a section on selected plays. "Kabuki in a Social and Historical Perspective" offers a broad summary, including playwrights, actors, and plays; the development of the stage, costumes and wigs, sets, and music. "Illustrating the World of Kabuki," provides a history of both Edo and Osaka woodblock prints. The heart of the book is the third section, "Retelling of Plays and Dance Dramas," devoted to prose renditions of thirty-seven plays performed on stage today. Written in a narrative style, the stories are accompanied by a vast collection of woodblock prints from the plays presented.

What is impressive about this volume is its extensive range of woodblock illustrations, printed in full color. Rarely has a single volume featured such a wide range of subjects within kabuki. Although most of the prints featured were made in the eighteenth through twentieth centuries, the prints begin as early as 1697 with a portrait of Danjūrō I playing Soga Gorō by Torii Kiyomasu I and continue to the 1930s with actor portraits by the artist Natori Shusen. The illustrations are arranged in groupings related to subject. The majority of the prints in this collection are actors in single prints, diptychs, and triptychs, from framed close-ups of the actors' faces to scenes of actors on stage surrounded by the audience. In addition, the work features prints of kabuki theatres and actors or stagehands involved in aspects not shown on stage. For example, in the essay on the social and historical impact of kabuki, the authors address subjects as diverse as the layout of a theatre's backstage area (gakuya), the process of applying bold face makeup (kumadori), a ceremony of an actor assuming a new name (shūmei kōjō), and a stage manager hitting wooden clappers (hyōshige) behind the curtain—and each of these features is accompanied by a print illustrating the action described. There are also illustrations of actors making New Year's calls to patrons, and women mourning before a scroll painting of Ichikawa Danjūrō VIII, an actor who committed suicide in 1832. These illustrations are interesting for the information they provide about the world of kabuki outside the theatre.

The majority of prints feature actors or scenes from the thirty-seven plays, and it is the range of diverse print styles shown with each play that makes the book so captivating. Love Letters from the Licensed Quarters features a two-page encapsulation of the play's plot, and four different illustrations of it, one each by Utagawa Kunisada I (1860), Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1843), Utagawa Toyokuni I (1789), and Utagawa Kunisada II (1863). The most extensive retelling in this volume, Chushingura, the Story of the Loyal Retainers, is an eighteen-page spread with twenty illustrations of scenes in the epic play. The woodblocks in the Chushingura section showcase several different print styles, from highlights of the Chushingura story to actor portraits. These prints span 136 years and demonstrate the continued interest of both artists and audiences in capturing the play through time. [End Page 211]

As stated in the preface by the authors, "The plays dealt with in the book are neither translated nor summarized. The stories are retold in our own words based on material published in Western languages" (p. 7). The authors write that they "borrowed heavily" from four sources: The Kabuki Handbook by Aubrey and Giovanna Halford (1961), The New Kabuki...


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