On the stage, a man walks out and approaches a stunningly beautiful woman. A stunningly beautiful woman who is really a man.
Welcome to Kabuki Theatre. [kabuki]
Kabuki, traditional Japanese theater, originally showcased women performing ensemble dances. In fact, the art itself was created by a woman. However, many of the women also moonlighted as prostitutes and were thus banned from the stage. They were replaced by young boys playing female roles in more dramatic performances, but this also led down the same curious moonlit path as the women. Finally, it was decided that only men would play female parts in Kabuki. This decision is still standing today.
According to “Kabuki Today: The Art and Tradition” by Iwao Kamimura, and translated by Kirsten McIvor, the word “Kabuki” is made of three parts: ka for music, bu for dance, ki for play or player. The plays focused on critical elements in any drama – love, morality and history. The spoken language in Kabuki is very old, and modern Japanese people have problems understanding it.
Kabuki theatre has inspired artists to try to capture the calm and beautifully theatrical imagery of the art form. The images look unusual and mysterious and can be seen for the next month at the Kresge Art Museum.
Joanna Hecker-Silva, a researcher for the museum, believes that beauty shines through the prints on display. “Even though they’re considered vulgar, we don’t see any vulgarity—it’s beautiful,” she said. [kab]
Because of the limited space the museum was offering – four walls, to be exact – Hecker-Silva wanted each wall to display a striking collection that generated “significant cultural themes for discussion,” she said.
Her next step was finding prints that best represent the Kabuki culture in its different forms. She said she was “always with an eye toward the prints which struck me as most formally unusual, most conceptually provocative, or simply most beautiful.”
For instance, “The Toothpick Shop” is a piece by artist Kitagawa Utamaro painted around 1800. In it, a woman works at a small shop, selling brushes and dye (dying teeth was considered trendy at the time). She makes a sale to a flirtatious man who clearly knowing she is a low-class prostitute. Mostly white and black, there are dashes of green in the man’s kimono and on the stems of flowers above the woman’s head. Their faces are pale white, and their expressions seem faint, as if they’re giving the biggest expression through the slightest gesture. They seem to have locked the rest of the world out.
“We would say it’s stylized, but in truth, this is very much what the actors would look like,” Hecker-Silva says. “Generally we see the main characters isolated …because critical decisions are being made.”
Hecker-Silva’s own critical decisions in finding prints for the gallery started as what looked like total confusion. When first looking through the prints to find suitable ones for the display, she found them to be very stylized and hard to relate to. But, just researching the history made the pictures relatable.
“These images reveal an exploration of the tensions between sexuality and morality, the pursuit of dignity disguised as pursuit of pleasure, and a fascination with celebrities who can act as inspiration and motivation to the masses—for better and for worse.”
The delicate and beautiful images of the Kabuki performers most likely came from how the artists viewed them, with admiration we feel for modern-day Hollywood celebrities.
“Then, as now, pictures of celebrities and their ‘floating world’ were a means by which the people could express their ideals, their ambitions, their fears and their dreams – none of which were more or less unrealistic, or unnatural, as are ours today,” she said.
The Kabuki artwork may look abstract, but reflects many modern ideas while at the same time reflecting the times in which they were made.
“Popular culture can, in the end, speak volumes about the populations within which it is created, and can address issues upon which ‘high art’ remains silent—and these images from the underworld of Edo in the 19th century do just that.”
The “Beautiful Women and the Men who Played Them: Prints of the Kabuki Theater” exhibit will be displayed in the Kresge Art Museum until December 17.

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