A Kabuki Oshiguma (Face Pressing): A Relic From The Past
Three celebrated Kabuki actors imortalised on a silk artefact!
Kabuki (classical all-male dance-drama) enthusiast and collector Trevor Skingle shares his discovery and the facinating history of a Japanese scroll he bought from an art dealer in the Netherlands that survived the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. His research has enabled him to identify the three Kabuki actors from the 1920’s who’s faces are imprinted onto the silk cloth and the artist who crafted a simple but elegant scroll mount with it.
The journey begins
I saw a Kabuki performance for the first time in 1987 when I made my first trip to Japan. From that point on I was hooked and could now, I suppose, be considered a Kabuki ‘otaku’, or geek. Since then I have visited Japan several times always making a point of travelling when my favourite Kabuki performers are on stage.
From that time on I’ve managed to collect a number of Kabuki related items; two theatre magazines published by the Kabukiza Theatre in Tokyo from the 1930s (now in the library of the Waseda Theatre Museum) from which I translated some of the articles including two extracts from the great Kabuki playwright Okamoto Kido’s autobiography, two photographs of Ichimura Uzaemon XV and Matsumoto Koshiro VII backstage at the Kabukiza in the costumes from the play ‘Kanjincho’ (both signed by the actors) and a few Kabuki prints. The one item that I dearly wanted was an ‘oshiguma’, a souvenir face pressing on silk created by the main actors at the end of a performance and usually given to actors’ patrons or sold off for charity.
In 2009 I happened to be browsing the web when I found one for sale by a Japanese art dealer in the Netherlands. The only information available was about two of the three actors whose face pressings appeared, Onoe Baiko VI as Princess Sarashina the Witch of Mount Togakushi and Ichimura Takematsu IV as the Mountain God Yamagami from the play ‘Momijigari’ (Contemplating Maples), as well the name of the artisan Kiyomizu who had mounted the silk on which the face pressings had been made on a ‘kakemono’ or vertical scroll mount.
Having bought it my research began and I managed to translate the missing name of the third actor from the box lid and box end paper as Uza, short for Uzaemon. Luckily a contact who runs the foremost French/English language Kabuki website, Kabuki 21, had the records from Tokyo’s National Theatre about historical Kabuki performances, which showed that the two actors already identified had performed in Momijigari with Ichimura Uzaemon XV as Taira No Koremochi in Tokyo on the 1st February 1922 at the Shintomiza Kabuki Theatre (later destroyed in the 1923 Great Earthquake and never rebuilt). Further research revealed that the artisan who mounted the face pressing on the scroll was none other than the potter Kiyomizu Rokubei VI who had also studied brush painting and some of his style of pottery decoration can be seen in the mount design; the maple leaves of the play’s title and the striped wand of Princess Sarashina. This may explain how the oshiguma and scroll survived the Great Earthquake of 1923 – the workshop of Kiyomizu Rokubei VI was in Kyoto to where the scroll was probably sent to be mounted and was out of Tokyo when the earthquake struck.
From this window on the world of Kabuki’s past began my fascination with Ichimura Uzaemon XV. ‘Yakusha nedaiki’, actors’ chronologies, were written for the three actors, establishing the pre-eminence of Uzaemon and Baiko as the most famous ‘goruden combi’ of their day. I then discovered Uzaemon’s connection to the West and his father Charles LeGendre, a Colonel of French-American origin who served with Ulysses S Grant in the American Civil War. Later, whilst employed as an advisor to the Japanese Government, LeGendre married Ito Ikeda the illegitimate daughter of Matsudaira Yoshinaga, one of the Four Wise Lords of the Tokugawa Shogunate and a descendant of Tokugawa Ieyasu, making Uzaemon a 16th generation descendant of the 1st of the Tokugawa Shoguns!
Uzaemon went on to become a hugely successful and popular actor and though in his youth he was considered too awkward to be a Kabuki actor he later developed to be one of the best ‘tachiyaku’ (male role specialist) of the first half of the twentieth century.
In 1945, with air raids on Tokyo a daily occurrence, Uzaemon was evacuated to Yada, a hot springs resort, in Nagano Prefecture. Uzaemon would never stand on the Kabuki stage again. He passed away in May of that year whilst at Yada and is buried in Zoshigaya cemetery in Tokyo , next to Onoe Baiko VI, his much-loved onngata (female role specialist) stage partner who had passed away in 1934. His funeral was made a day of National mourning and the Police had to be employed to control the crowds
Four months later, when Faubion Bowers, the ‘saviour of Kabuki’ arrived in Atsugi accompanying the head of the US Army of Occupation, General Douglas McArthur, the first question he asked the waiting Japanese journalists was, ‘Is Uzaemon still alive?’
It’s a testament to Uzaemon that, like Ichikawa Danjuro IX, for subsequent generations of Kabuki fans his popularity and legend continues to live on.
All images ©Trevor Skingle All rights reserved
“Creating an oshiguma” image taken from the book Kumadori by Toshiro Morita, 1985
Trevor Skingle was born and lives in London where he works in the field of Humanitarian Disaster Relief. He is a Japanophile and his hobbies are Kabuki, painting and drawing and learning Japanese.