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Israel Museum presents exhibition of Original Kabuki Theater Costumes and Artwork

Israel Museum presents an exhibition showcasing 17th-20th century Japanese prints, paintings and original Kabuki theatre costumes on view through November 10.

Katsukawa Shunko, 1743–1812, Onnagata in the role of Tonase in the play Chūshingura (The Treasury of Loyal Retainers), Woodblock color print, 1773, The Jacob Pins collection in the Israel Museum

Kabuki is a traditional Japanese form of theatre, first established in the early 17th century. Its drama deals with the daily conflicts of Japanese life, myth and historical tales of ancient Japan. It is played in a styled manner of speech, music and dance with extravagant costumes and accessories. Its stage is elaborate, equipped with trap doors and a bridge for the actor’s dramatic entrances and exits.

After the Tokugawa shogunate -feudal military dictatorship-government banned female acting on stage in 1629, the art of female impersonating flourished. Not just a well-disguised man, the onnagata role went beyond mere mimicking, and established its own staged femininity. Eventually, the virtuoso onnagata actor gained high popularity as a fashion trend setter in the big cities of Japan. After film was introduced in Japan at the end of the 19th century, the onnagata continued to portray females in movies until the early 1920s. At that time, however, using real female actresses was coming into fashion with the introduction of western realist films. Kabuki, however, remains all-male even today

The Israel Museum exhibition showcases 17th-20th century prints, paintings and original Kabuki theatre costumes in an attempt to highlight the important role of the female impersonators in the Edo period (1615-1868). Through art, film and costume, the visitor will gain an insight into the evolution of this unique acting form, while glimpsing a unique aspect of Japanese culture.

Costumes, in combination with makeup, contribute to the portrayal of characters in Kabuki plays, indicating their gender, social class, and age by means of intricate patterns and vibrant colors, such as the red associated with the role of the princess. The floral symbols and literary allusions imbue the costumes with subtlety, illusion, and hidden meaning, enhancing the viewer’s familiarity with a particular protagonist. They also occasionally identify the actor by his personal crest or another symbol typifying the role for which he was most renowned. All of the costumes exhibited in Crossplay: Male Actors, Female Roles in Kabuki Theatre are on loan from the Isetan Mitsukoshi Ltd. Department Store.

As part of the Israel Museum’s program of summer events, on August 30 and 31, a troupe of Kabuki actors from Japan will perform and demonstrate the distinctive style of kabuki acting, explaining the significance of the gestures and music accompanying this colorful and unique form of theater.

Crossplay: Male Actors, Female Roles in Kabuki Theatre is shown in association with the Embassy of Japan in Israel and the Japan Foundation, on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries, and is curated by Miriam Malachi, Associate curator, Marcel Lorber Department of Asian Art.

The Israel Museum is the largest cultural institution in the State of Israel and is ranked among the world’s leading art and archaeology museums. Founded in 1965, the Museum houses encyclopedic collections, including works dating from prehistory to the present day, in its Archaeology, Fine Arts, and Jewish Art and Life Wings, and features the most extensive holdings of biblical and Holy Land archaeology in the world.

The Israel Museum, Jerusalem
PO Box 71117
Jerusalem 91710