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Kabuki in the 20th Century

Taking a more self-consciously artistic and formal approach than their earlier counterparts, Shin Hanga (New Print) artists emphasized Western-style figure studies as well as landscapes and architectural subjects. A small group that included Natori Shunsen (1886-1960) set out to revive the actor portrait as woodblock publishing also underwent a revival. Even though this artist is sometimes called the last master of the Kabuki portrait, other artists including Masamitsu Ota also continued to render powerful psychological likenesses of actors in styles infusing Western realism into this bold graphic format.

Only a few remnants survive of the old system connecting woodblock prints to kabuki theater and kabuki stars. Tsuruya Kokei (b. 1946) made strikingly original portraits of contemporary Kabuki actors that owe much to the great 18th century caricaturist Sharaku. Kokei was closely affiliated with Kabuki-za, an important theater in Tokyo, where his prints sold as artistic souvenirs. But like Sharaku, Kokei rather mysteriously ceased making prints in 2000 due to lack of support for his art.

The latest theatrical print master is Paul Binnie, who lives and works in London. Trained in woodblock printing in Japan, where he also haunted Kabuki theaters in the 1990s, Binnie produces beautiful and energetic big head portraits. In the past, prints sold to Japanese fans who followed a particular actor or family of actors. Binnies buyers today almost all Americans or other Westerners choose by the image rather than the actor or play. Binnies oeuvre encompasses bijin-ga (beautiful woman pictures), visions of tattooed men, and the occasional landscape. Indeed, there is only modest demand for his actor prints: If I had stuck to making only Kabuki subjects in print, I would have starved long ago.

Other contemporary artists, including the Japanese-American Roger Shimomura, quote Kabuki when invoking ethnic and racial stereotypes in todays global visual culture.