Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) Ichimura Kakitsu IV - The Mirror of Backstage in Full Bloom, 1865. Oban.
This is an enigmatic image. It foreshadows the Meiji period in as much as it portrays the then little known actor Ichimura Kakitsu IV and it is drawn by Toyohara Kunichika, a young artist still only a short while out of the pupillage of the greatest figure in Japanese art, Utagawa Kunisada, who died this same year, 1865. We are also in the first full ‘bloom’ of the great Meiji revolution… the shogunate was not to fall until 1868, 1864 was an important year in the build up of social upheaval.
Ichimura Kakitsu IV only held that stage name until in fact, 1868 whereupon he became Ichimura Kakitsu V, letting himself be known by his pen name of Onoe Baiko, or Baiko for short. Baiko became the only other star of the kabuki stage to shine as brightly as Ichikawa Danjuro IX and between them they strode the Meiji kabuki stage until 1900, when it might be said that with the death of Kunichika and Danjuro IX (1903), ukiyo-e, kabuki and a centuries old culture also died. Kunichika went from relative obscurity as the last pupil of the great Kunisada to become the biggest name in Meiji woodblock printing (and therefore the visual arts) and effectively the last. And hence this particular print is loaded with history: it foretells the trajectory of the kabuki stage, the greatest popular art form to come out of Japan for centuries and it also foretells the increasingly desperate relationship between the visual arts - in the guise of Kunichika; kabuki - in the image of Baiko; and in the adoration of the fans that would wane with the introduction of cinema, western acting, photography and newspapers.
It’s an altar that is shown in this print. Buddhist altars were simple affairs and contained the key elements of a an image, perhaps a picture of the Buddha, or the image of a guru or loved one. There were flowers or a plant, a candle, an offering, a water cup and an incense bowl. Well, these elements are not all present but the objects correspond visually to a shrine. Hence we have the make up brushes that take the shape of small flames, the make up dish with the red kumadori make up that echoes an incense bowl, and of course the portrait which is enigmatically a mirror, the mirror image of Baiko, not the actor himself.
The actor adopts a religious pose, as if he were presenting a scripture or text rather than reading his lines; the lacquered, framed mirror would have been made of highly polished metal not glass; and the cloths that confusingly drape the edges are there to protect the ‘screen’ of the surface from finger marks that would quickly tarnish the vulnerable surface. To the left are the disguises of the actor… the heavy wig on the stand and further paraphernalia of the image of the stage. The image of the actor is raw… the image of the actor is revealed by the mirror. It is in fact a magical revelation, a transformation. Baiko is shown in his true shape, not that of his image on stage. The crucial point of the print is that the mirror reveals the actor. This exciting device has many precedents in Japanese culture and hence in Japanese prints. The Japanese believed that demons, shape-shifters and animal spirits taking the part of humans could be magically revealed in reflective surfaces such as mirrors or water, a trope which can be found elsewhere too. The long running television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer used the same device to reveal the presence of demons and vampires and in the current and popular Netflix series The Innocents, the presence of shape-shifters is revealed by their true form reflected in shop windows and also mirrors.
And so it seems that across cultures the mirror ‘reveals’ the true nature of that which it reflects. In this minor masterpiece, the mirror in the dressing room (every bit as divine a space as a temple to the Edoist kabuki fan), has revealed the actor, shown him in his shrine… he sits with lofty benevolence, in ‘full bloom’. That last phrase ‘full bloom’ that appears in the title refers to a common phrase of the time. Comparing actors or heroes to blooms or flowers was common parlance and great actors were often referred to as the ‘Flowers of Edo’… so were the frequent horrific fires but that is another story.
This is a great and an important print. Just as the print ‘revealed’ the actor to the kabuki fan, so it now reveals to us the nature of the relationship of the stage to the audience and the artist as vital intercessionary in that process.