September 06, 2022 TOPICS

Shedding Light on the Unknown Reality of Mid-Edo Tenmei Kabuki—Using Digital Archives to Conduct an Integrated Analysis of Ukiyo-e Prints from All Over the World

 Kabuki is one of the traditional Japanese performing arts that is registered as an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO. It emerged in the early Edo period, and to date, a vast amount of research has been conducted on kabuki. However, much about the reality of Tenmei Kabuki from the mid-Edo period, which is considered the heyday of the art form, remains unknown.
 The passion of Shiori Totsuka, a first-year doctoral student in the Graduate School of Letters, is to shed light on the reality of Tenmei Kabuki by conducting an integrated analysis of yakusha-e, ukiyo-e paintings depicting Kabuki actors, that are scattered throughout the world.

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Zeroing in on Tenmei Kabuki from the mid-Edo period to fill in the gaps

 Totsuka is conducting research to shed light on the actual situation of Tenmei Kabuki in the mid-Edo period and to understand the relationship between the Katsugawa school* of yakusha-e and the kabuki industry. Kabuki was made famous by the works of dramatists such as Chikamatsu Monzaemon in the early Edo period and Tsuruya Nanboku and Kawatake Mokuami in the late Edo period, and there is a wealth of research on the art from this period. Compared to the earlier and later periods, however, not much light has been shed on the situation surrounding Tenmei Kabuki from the mid-Edo period.
 While it is easy to understand why so few historical records from the Edo period still remain, those from the Tenmei Kabuki period are particularly scarce. This is not only due to the fact that historical documents are scattered about, but also because of causes unique to the Tenmei Kabuki period.
 “In kabuki research, the primary methodology is to analyze scripts and other written materials from the period in question to elucidate the reality of the situation. Few scripts from the Tenmei Kabuki period have survived, however, and the actors appear to have often improvised their techniques. For this reason, it is difficult to fully elucidate the actual situation of the Tenmei Kabuki period from scripts and other written materials alone,” explains Totsuka.
 Totsuka decided to take a different approach: to ascertain the reality of the Tenmei Kabuki period from the highly visual Katsugawa School yakusha-e prints. She felt that yakusha-e from that period in time, which depict the actors’ expression of the art form, could bring her closer to understanding that reality. However, she faced a major obstacle in that the important yakusha-e from the Tenmei Kabuki period are scattered all over the world.
* Katsugawa School: A school of popular ukiyo-e artists founded by Shunsho Katsugawa.

Kabuki actor fan painting by Shunsho Katsugawa
Kabuki actor fan painting by Shunsho Katsugawa. From the collection of the Ritsumeikan University Art Research Center (arcUY0262)

Collaborating with foreign research institutes to conduct an integrated analysis of yakusha-e

 The Edo period, ukiyo-e, including yakusha-e, were not that valuable. However, after they were exported coincidentally or caught the eye of foreigners visiting Japan, they grew to become loved, and people in the Europe and the United States came to seek them out for their artistic value. It is likely that the Japanese art boom known as Japonisme that began in Europe was triggered by ukiyo-e, which was used as packing material for ceramics exported to Europe.
 Since her undergraduate days, Totsuka has been involved in a research project with Professor Ryo Akama of the College of Letters, and as part of this, she has visited the Royal Museum of History and Art in Belgium and the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada to conduct research on the ukiyo-e there. This historical research has revealed that tens of thousands of yakusha-e from the mid-Edo period are located overseas.
 What’s more, the recent development of digital technology has ushered in a heyday of digital archiving, in which materials are digitized, collected, stored, and utilized. The Ritsumeikan University Art Research Center (ARC), to which Totsuka belongs, is currently leveraging its network of museums around the world to digitize a vast number of ukiyo-e works, and it is spearheading the development of a digital archive that enables the cross-searching of these works. Although the pandemic has made it difficult to go overseas for research, the development of this digital archive has made it possible to comprehensively analyze ukiyo-e located all over the world.
 In discussing the significance of coming into direct contact with original historical documents and learning from first-hand experience, Totsuka told us the following: “The ability to analyze digital data of various ukiyo-e scattered across the globe has greatly advanced kabuki and ukiyo-e research. However, I believe it is important to handle digital data by analyzing the original historical records directly, such as seeing how the original materials feel on the skin, and by placing value on the experience and knowledge gained through communication with local curators and researchers."

Digitally archived photos

Keep trying new things and enjoy the unknown

 Totsuka belongs to ARC, which engages in several interdisciplinary projects. In the field of digital archiving of ukiyo-e, in particular, she has conducted joint research with graduate students from the Graduate School of Information Science and Engineering on a face recognition system for ukiyo-e and a system that can retrieve similar images. Totsuka says it is exciting to work with graduate students in natural science fields like machine learning.
 For her, the most important thing in conducting this research is to keep trying new things. “ARC engages in many international research projects that integrate the humanities and sciences. I am very curious, so I am involved in many different projects. I often make mistakes and run into things that I do not understand. Still, I do not let setbacks get me down. Even if I encounter a setback, I am determined to grab hold of something. ARC has an environment where I can immediately consult with someone if I have any questions, which is really helpful. If I get stuck on one project, I can reset my brain by devoting myself to another project," she explains.

Photo at the time of interview

For the love of theater

 Totsuka told us that she has always loved painting and the theater, including kabuki, and often went to art galleries, museums, and stage performances. It was only a hobby, however, and when she first entered university, she was initially thinking of becoming a high school teacher. It was during this time that she took a class taught by Professor Ryo Akama and was drawn to the prospect of researching it kabuki, instead of only being a spectator.
 “I study mid-Edo period kabuki and ukiyo-e, but I also love modern kabuki and often go to performances. By doing this, you come to realize that behind the interesting aspects of modern kabuki lie elements and influences from the kabuki of the Edo period. This makes me wonder if people in the Edo period hundreds of years ago enjoyed kabuki in the same way, and it reaffirms just how interesting and exciting this research is to me," she says.
 Totsuka is working to clarify the reality of mid-Edo and Tenmei kabuki, where there is a gap in the historical record, and says that her next research project will be a comprehensive analysis of Edo era kabuki, in which she intends to eventually weave a complete history of kabuki up to the modern era.
 We look forward to seeing how her endeavors will open up a new world of kabuki.

Photo in front of ARC

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