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Degatari ("Narrator's Appearance")


Kiyonaga kanji Kiyonaga Torii Kiyonaga (1752-1815) is best known for his widely influential pictures of beautiful women (bijin-ga). He was also a member of the Torii school of theatrical printmakers and so depicted actors on the kabuki stage.

In the 1780s Kiyonaga introduced a sub-genre of single-sheet theatrical prints called degatari-zu ("pictures of narrators' appearance": 出語り図). Before the late eighteenth century, musicians and chanters sat out of view from the audience, but Kiyonaga's degatari-zu depicted scenes in a large series placing the actors in front of the chanters and the musicians on the tokodai (the raised musician's dais) as they recited or chanted along with jôruri music (various styles of musical narrative chanting and singing used to accompany the action on the puppet and kabuki stages).

Kiyonaga's untitled degatari series (published during the years 1784-1788) comprises more than 40 known examples. At that time the Tomimoto school of jôruri accompaniment was the most popular school, exceeding the fame of the rival Tokiwazu. One playwright, Horikoshi Nisôji (1721-1781?), is credited with the development of many dance-drama pieces (called shosagoto) in the Tokiwazu style. Shosagoto — mimetic-style dances in which the actors mimed the story as musicians played the samisen and chanters took up the narrative — often had a powerful emotional impact on theater audiences. Nisôji's works were so popular that soon at least one shosagoto scene was included in each full-length kabuki drama, making the shosagoto an essential element of dramatic plays.

Degatari kanji The degatari-zu portrayed dances that could also be performed as independent interludes during the kabuki programs, and their establishment within the kabuki repertoire demanded the growth and involvement of choreographic specialists. With the development of shosagoto came a need for serious dances in male-character (tachiyaku or "male role"), as previously only the dances of the onnagata ("woman's manner") were given a wide range of technique and expression in kabuki. In fact, it was only by the Temmei era (1781-1788), when Kiyonaga's degatari-zu were published, that the male dance was more or less fully developed, so it is likely the main impetus for Kiyonaga's degatari series would have been the refinement of choreography in shosagoto and its widespread popularity.

Degatari-zu as introduced by Kiyonaga were uncommon in single-sheet prints, although Katsukawa Shunkô (1743-1812) and Katsukawa Shunchô (active c. 1780-1785) also designed degatari-zu in the Kiyonaga style. Such scenes were previously found more frequently in theater publications (including banzuke or theater playbills, as well as the irregularly issued but more generously illustrated ehon banzuke or picture-book theater programs). Such pictures were crowded with figures, and Kiyonaga's designs demonstrate his skill in solving the complexities of composition involving numerous figures as they filled the pictorial space.

Many of the subjects in the 'degatari-zu' theatrical print genre involve pairs of tragic lovers. The print on the upper right depicts Sawamura Sôjûrô II as the married paper merchant Jihei and Iwai Hanshirô IV as his lover, the kind-hearted and devoted courtesan Koharu, in a performance at the Nakamura Theater, Edo, in 8/1784. Theatrical records identify the two chanters as Tomimoto Buzendayû (the leader of the Tomimoto school mentioned earlier, whose other name was Tomimoto Buzennojô II) and Tomimoto Itsukidayû, and the 'samisen' player as Namisaki Tokuji.

This michiyuki ("road-going") dance sequence was based on Michiyuki nobe no kakioki, an adaptation of one of the most famous and admired of all shinjû-mono ("double suicide plays") — Chikamatsu Monzaemon's Shinjû ten no Amijima ("The Love Suicides at Amijima") originally given at the Takemoto puppet theater in 1721. The story may have been based on actual events, as there are unsubstantiated accounts of the deaths at the Daichoji Temple on November 13, 1720 of a paper merchant named Jihei at Temma in Osaka, and Koharu, a courtesan of the Kinokuniya at Sonezaki Shinchi. In Chikamatsu's play Jihei and Koharu are engaged in a hopeless affair, bringing shame upon his family. In Kiyonaga's print the lovers journey toward the temple grounds at Amijima with the intention of sacrificing their lives. They ultimately decide to escape the world symbolically as "priest" and "nun" and to die separately on the temple grounds so as to remain respectful of Jihei's wife, Osan.

Michiyuki were often summations of the central conflicts of the plays, viewed retrospectively, in which the lovers recalled with regret and sorrow their former lives and the loved ones they were forsaking. 'Michiyuki' were especially important in Chikamatsu's 'shinjû-mono' and sometimes served the function of developing ordinary characters into heroes and heroines as they faced their imminent deaths and developed a new self-awareness. Kiyonaga's composition is paradoxical because it juxtaposes the evocative and imaginative narrative of the tragic tale with the theatrical reality of the musicians. The sadness of Jihei is especially obvious and draws us into the realism of the portrayal, but given the obvious stage setting, there is no doubt that we are also looking at a performance. Thus the "reality" of the tragedy is somewhat compromised. About a decade after the appearance of the last of Kiyonaga's degatari-zu, Kitagawa Utamaro would take up the theme of shinjû-mono by dispensing with its theatrical elements and emphasizing the emotional and realistic aspects of these stories (see Utamaro's Umegawa and Chûbei for an example of this alternative approach). © 2000-2001 by John Fiorillo


  • Gerstle, C.A.: Circles of Fantasy: Convention in the Plays of Chikamatsu. Cambridge 1986, p. 113-153.
  • Keene, D.: Major Plays of Chikamatsu. New York, 1976, pp. 394-425.
  • Leiter, S.: New Kabuki Encyclopedia: A Revised Adaptation of Kabuki jiten. Westport: Greenward Press, 1997, p. 77.
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