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Reviewed by:
  • Stars of the Tokyo Stage: Natori Shunsen’s Kabuki Actor Prints by Lucie Folan
  • William Fleming
Stars of the Tokyo Stage: Natori Shunsen’s Kabuki Actor Prints. By Lucie Folan et al. Exhibition catalog. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 2012. 144 pp. Color illustrations. Paperback, $39.95.

The reader’s experience of this visually arresting volume begins with the close-up of a samurai’s scarred, scowling visage that occupies the entire front cover. At first blush, the choice seems somewhat incongruous. This is an actor print, to be sure, but it is not a kabuki actor print. Rather, it depicts the film star Ōkōchi Denjirō in his celebrated performance as the swordsman Tange Sazen, the hero of a series of popular films from the 1920s and 1930s. Yet as one opens the volume and delves more deeply into the visual world of Natori Shunsen (1886–1960), the choice comes to seem both revealing and appropriate. Shunsen, one of the last great kabuki printmakers, produced his work in an age when kabuki competed with new forms of entertainment such as film and shingeki realist theater, when technologies of photoreproduction increasingly displaced the woodblock print, and when Japanese artists actively experimented with naturalism and the techniques of Western painting. A recurring theme in the catalog entries and accompanying notes is the way in which Shunsen’s kabuki prints combine a grounding in established conventions with a sort of “realistic representation” that suggests an affinity with these new developments.

Stars of the Tokyo Stage was published in conjunction with the National Gallery of Australia’s exhibition of the same title, curated by Lucie Folan. The catalog presents Shunsen’s most famous series of actor prints, Sōsakuhanga Shunsen nigao shū (1925–1928, translated as Collection of Creative Portraits by Shunsen), in its entirety; a number of other prints are included in addition to these thirty-six, among them a few from the fifteen-print supplement Shunsen nigao shū tsuika (1929–1934, Supplement to Collection of Portraits by Shunsen). Shunsen’s prints were, from their inception, aimed at collectors and theater aficionados of means, and they feature lavish production values, including expensive paper and dyes, mica pigment, and embossing. While certain qualities are difficult to appreciate unless one is in the presence of the original, the sumptuous colors and high level of detail are well served by the catalog’s high-quality, full-color reproductions. There have been a few catalogs featuring Shunsen’s work to date; most recently, Dilys Pegler Winegrad’s Dramatic Impressions: Japanese Theatre Prints from the Gilbert Luber Collection (Philadelphia: Arthur Ross Gallery, 2007), for example, included some two dozen prints. As a catalog devoted solely to Shunsen, however, Stars of the Tokyo Stage is a most welcome addition and now represents the best point of entry into his captivating world.

Each print is reproduced as a full page with commentary opposite. These detailed explanations consist of three parts: (1) a relatively thorough synopsis of the play the print depicts, followed by (2) a short discussion of the particular scene or moment, its significance, and salient aspects of Shunsen’s design, and (3) a few lines about the actor performing the role. In several instances, side-by-side comparisons with contemporary photographs enable [End Page 343] the reader to see more clearly how Shunsen’s portraits preserve conventions of earlier ukiyo-e while achieving a high level of realistic likeness to their subjects. Shunsen’s prints feature many of the great actors of his day, and the scenes depicted span much of the diverse repertoire of 1920s and 1930s kabuki. While it is difficult to choose among such treasures, highlights include the portraits of Bandō Hikosaburō VI and Matsumoto Kōshirō VII in dramatic kumadori makeup as Matsuōmaru and Umeōmaru from Sugawara’s Secrets of Calligraphy (pp. 62–63; close-up on p. 66); the depiction of Bandō Shūchō III as a lithe, willowy Shizuka Gozen in Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees (p. 76); and the lovely print of Kataoka Nizaemon XI in profile against a mica background as Chūshingura’s Kakogawa Honzō, with its suggestion of Sharaku (p. 79). (As...


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