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Iwai Kumesaburo III as the Shirabyoshi Dancer Asakeno (1852)

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About the Art

In an extraordinary costume blooming with flowers, a Shirabyôshi dancer glides across a bridge.

This image derives from the kabuki play "The Book of the Eight Dog Heroes", commonly referred to as ‘Hakkenden’. The story is based around eight half brothers who are descendant from a dog, bearing the word ‘dog’ in their surnames. Like many Kabuki plays, one of the main inspirations was the Chinese epic novel "The Water Margin", but also Buddhist philosophy and shintoism. In the original story, Asakeno is born a boy but brought up a woman in order to escape the deadly machinations of a rival clan. Asakeno applies to become an imperial dancer and is accepted.

Tall and good-looking, the actor Iwai Kumesaburô III was an incredibly popular 'onnagata', or female impersonator. As female kabuki performers were banned in 1629 due to their prostitution, kabuki was performed with an all-male cast and actors would specialise in either masculine or feminine roles. Here he poses as Asakeno; a 'Shirabyōshi' dancer, which is a traditional female dancer who performed in the Japanese imperial court. 

An interesting contrast is that Shirabyōshi dancers actually wore men’s attire, inspired by Shintoism, and even carried swords when they danced. Note the 'tate-eboshi' hat the actor wears, which was a hat traditionally worn by samurai.

Shirabyōshi literally translates to mean "white rhythm", due to their pale make-up and the slow rhythmic music they’d dance to. Interestingly, centuries later the trademark white make-up became associated with geisha. Asakeno wears a kimono patterned with peonies, suggesting wealth, fortune and honor. In Asakeno’s hand is a 'kawahori', a hand-fan carried by men, patterned with chrysanthemums; a symbol of long life and rejuvenation and is the official emblem of Japan’s imperial family.

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