Kabuki Portrait

/ Spotlight on the Collection

Memorial Portrait (Ashini-e 死絵) of Famed Kabuki Actor Ichikawa Ebizô V (五代市川海老蔵, 1791-1859) acting with Arashi Koroku V (五代嵐湖六, d. 1858) 1859, Edo Period (1615-1868) Utagawa Kunisada 歌川国貞 Japanese, born 1786-1865 died Birmingham Museum of Art, Gift of Dr. Roy T. Ward, 1995.110

When this print was put on view, the Kabuki actors were not yet identified. Now their history can be told.

Written by Dr. Katherine Anne Paul, The Virginia and William M. Spencer III Curator of Asian Art

 Kabuki was—and remains—an action-packed theater style. Today and historically, Kabuki actors (like some American movie stars) develop a cult-like fan base. Although Kabuki theater was invented by a woman (Okuni 出雲阿国 Izumo no Okuni, born ca. 1572; died ca. 1613), by the year 1629, women were banned from performing Kabuki and all roles—both masculine and feminine were played by men. Only recently have modern women taken on Kabuki once more. Men specializing in female roles are called Onnagata or oyama (女形・女方, literally “woman-role”). A small forehead-cloth (demonstrated by the kneeling figure in this print) emphasizes the Onnagata actor.

 Ichikawa Ebizô V here plays the male role dressed in the grey robes of a Buddhist priest with a long green head-covering. It is common for memorial portraits to have some Buddhist content as a blessing for their afterlife. Arashi Koroku V plays a female role, offering up a large yellow tree peony in a blue and white vase. This offering may be a reference to a wish that Ichikawa Ebizô V attains an afterlife in the Buddhist paradise of Amitabha Buddha. It may also refer to a play they performed together. The “V” at the end of their names means that each of these actors are the fifth generation of actors in their family.

 Like collectors of photographs or posters of movies and movie-starts, Kabuki fans may purchase portraits of their favorite actors in a wide variety of roles including their memorial portraits. Many memorial portraits of Ichikawa Ebizô V survive. In fact, more than one portrait of this actor was created by this artist, Utagawa Kunisada. Both publishers and artists gained wealth and fame through these portraits.

 This work is currently on view in the special exhibition Ways of Seeing: Portraits in the Bohorfoush Gallery.