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Bando Shuka I as the Concubine Okaru (1852)

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About the Art

Robed in a beautiful Kimono of dusty pinks and autumnal blooms, Okaru clutches the sleeve of her Kimono and glides along the riverbank. Peering over her shoulder, she spies on two men and plots her next move.

Unlike many yakusha-e prints that depict actors in scenes from specific kabuki plays, Kunisada’s series "Fifty-three Stations of the Tôkaidô Road" does something very different. Following the Tenpo reforms in Japan in 1841/42, censorship laws came into place that affected the production and publication of ukiyo-e, banning such items as a "luxury". This strict ban lasted until 1850, after which the laws were relaxed. Many ukiyo-e artists continued to produce work during these years, but had to find sneaky ways to get around the Japanese legislation. A popular approach was to disguise yakusha-e prints as landscape prints, with kabuki actors illustrated but no mention of their names. After laws were relaxed, the kabuki landscape prints were so popular that their production continued, but with far more drama, and the obvious naming of the actors.

This series shows portraits of famous Kabuki actors amongst beautiful Japanese landscapes along theTôkaidô Road. Although the title suggests fifty-three stations in the series, there are actually more than 150 designs. This piece in particular is from the station ‘Hodogaya’, which is the fifth stop on the Tôkaidô Road. Kabuki actors in Edo-period Japan are comparable to today’s movie stars, and many were recognisable simply by their facial expressions or character roles. Here, Bando Shuka I plays the Courtesan Okaru, the heroine of the popular kabuki play 'Kanadehon Chūshingura'.

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