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Tsuruya Kôkei (born 1946)


Kokei tonase#1 Kokei kanji Tsuruya Kôkei (弦屋光溪) is a contemporary artist working in a method adapted from traditional ukiyo-e printmaking. His prints may evoke the works of great Tôshûsai Sharaku, but they are not mere copies or pastiches of those eighteenth-century masterpieces. Unlike traditional ukiyo-e artists who provided publishers with original drawings for their block cutters and printers, Kôkei draws, carves, and prints his own designs, but with a difference — all but his earliest kabuki subjects (and a few non-theatrical designs) were produced on very thin papers, in particular hodomura from from Tochigi prefecture and ganpi from Koichi and Fukui prefectures. These papers are very difficult to work with, but their translucent quality imparts an expressive fragility to his works. He often used (silver magnolia, softer than cherry and more easily carved) and took about 40 days to complete an edition of 72 (all his editions are small, especially some of the specially commissioned prints that were not sold publicly).

The design at the top right was issued in November 1984 (edition of 45) and printed on ôban-size ganpi from Koichi. It depicts the actor Nakamura Utaemon VI as Tonase in Act 9 from the perennially popular kabuki play Kanadehon chûshingura ("Writing Manual of the Treasury of Loyal Retainers"). Tonase is the wife of the councilor Honzô [see also Shunsen's portrait]. In the scene shown here, Tonase has vowed to take her own life and that of her daughter Konami who has been humiliated in a failed marriage arrangement. Tonase wears her husband's two swords in a symbolic gesture as she prepares for their deaths (which are prevented at the last moment). The use of gofun (calcium carbonate pigment) mimics the opaque white face powder used by the actor. The lines of the face are tense and thin, giving Tonase an air of deadly resolve. The exaggerated hand (a trademark of Kôkei's style) grips the sword hilt and serves as an emotional pivot for the design [see larger image]. The crimson of the kimono offers a surprisinlyg bright note in an otherwise grim portrayal.

Kokei gongoro#1 The design on the left is one of six prints issued to commemorate the succession to the name of Ichikawa Danjûrô XII in 1985 (edition of 54). It is an ôban-size print on ganpi from Fukui with a silver mica ground. All the plays in this set are aragoto ("rough stuff"), a specialty of the Ichikawa family (their Kabuki jûhachiban or "Eighteen Favorite Plays" that have been standards since their codification in 1840 by Danjûrô VII). The actor is shown as the hero Kamakura Gongorô in the play Shibaraku ("Wait a Moment!"), first staged by Danjûrô I in 1697. Gongorô defeats an evil lord named Takehira in his plot to usurp the power of the governor of the Eastern Provinces.

Kôkei has produced a vivid portrait of the actor, with overprintings of green, pink, and gray. The actor's make-up is one type of kumadori ("taking the shadows"), a bold style used in aragoto plays. The Ichikawa family crest can be seen on Danjûrô's chest (the mimasu or "three rice measures"). Kôkei's use of soft-edge printing is also evident around Danjûrô's collar [see larger image].

Kokei tokichi The design on the immediate right is an ôban-size print (edition of 63; December 1988) depicting the actor Nakamura Kichiemon II as Tokichi in the play Gion sairei shinkoki in the "The Golden Pavilion Scene" (Kinkakuji no ba). Tokichi was a retainer plotting to rescue the late shogun's mother from the evil Daizen. The two play a game of go, which Tokichi wins, whereupon Daizen throws the box of go counters down a well and challenges Tokichi to retrieve it without wetting his hands. Tokichi diverts water from a waterfall into the well and floats the box to the top, lifts it with his fan, and sets it upon an overturned go board. The actor is portrayed against a purple-pink mica ground, and the curving lines of Kôkei's earlier works have changed here to more angular and straighter lines in the face, giving the portrait a quality of rigid confrontation. Once again the enlarged and distorted hand serves as a focal point for the composition and the soft-edge printing is quite effective [see larger image].

Kôkei's images are fascinating. Their exaggerated physiognomy and expressive mie (climactic "pose" or "display") offer startling portrayals filtered through a modern sensibility. These images have elements of traditional ukiyo-e, drawn-from-life accuracy, and caricature that make them unique and important works of art, perhaps vital enough to help revive what had in recent years become a moribund genre of kabuki actor portraiture. Whether Kôkei's prints can help to revitalize contemporary kabuki printmaking (see also Binnie) in the minds and hearts of museum curators and collectors remains to be seen. Unfortunately, Kôkei ceased designing kabuki prints in 2000 (the catalogue raisonné cited below illustrates 200 woodblock prints by Kôkei). Nevertheless, the best of Kôkei's works offer imaginative and powerful portrayals of modern actors from the stage. ©1999-2001, 2010 by John Fiorillo


  • Brandon, James: Chûshingura: Studies in Kabuki and the Puppet Theater. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1982.
  • Halford, Aubrey & Giovanna: The Kabuki Handbook. Rutland & Tokyo: Tuttle, 1956, pp. 36-40 & 259-262.
  • Keene, Donald: Chûshingura: The Treasury of Loyal Retainers. New York: Columbia University Press, 1971.
  • Shôchiku Co. (Eds.): Tsuruya Kôkei: Kabuki Actor Prints (The 100th Anniversary of the Kabuki-za Theatre). Tokyo: Shochiku Co. and Toryo Publishing Co., 1988.
  • Shôchiku Co. (Eds.): Tsuruya Kôkei: The Complete Woodblock Prints. Tokyo: Hiraki Ukiyo-e Foundation, 2000.
  • Smith, Lawrence: Modern Japanese Prints 1912-1989. London: British Museum Press, 1994, p. 66, plates 139-140.
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