More than two hundred years after his death, the great Japanese artist Kitagawa Utamaro (1753–1806) came back to life for visitors to the Freer|Sackler this summer. The Tokyo-based It’s Follies musical company visited the museums June 30 through July 2 to perform excerpts from their hit 1985 production Utamaro: The Musical.
Five actors in full costume played the great artist himself as well as a kabuki-style narrator and several of Utamaro’s main muses—courtesans from the famous red-light districts of old Edo. Five performances drew a combined audience of nearly six hundred guests to these programs that complemented our exhibition Inventing Utamaro: A Japanese Masterpiece Rediscovered.
Their opening number, “Ryogoku, My Town,” extols the stimulating variety of “lonesome losers” who populated the town. The lyrics describe a litany of “pickpockets, snitches, spongers, debt collectors, ruffians, pimps, luggage thieves, sheriffs, sloths, fallen drug dealers, gamblers, drunkards, pilferers, drag queens, male prostitutes, old maids, con men, fakers, storytellers, tumblers, street performers . . . anything is in Ryogoku. This town is my town, I like to walk in this town, a town where lonesome losers lost in the game of life.”
Standing out among the plethora of low-life characters are royalty of the red-light district—the high-end courtesans (oiran) who could be seen by commoners only during a formal parade. One such courtesan was played by actress Yuko Katsube. Her costume featured an ornate kimono and the twelve-inch-tall elevated shoes called koma-geta or mitsu-ashi, worn only by these high-ranking women.
By now a best-selling artist, Utamaro is commissioned to paint a popular waitress at the Naniwa teahouse (which the narrator compares to a modern-day Starbucks). Instead, his attention is drawn to a new girl, Okita, who works there only part-time. Reluctant at first, she is finally persuaded to pose for Utamaro by his persistent and poetic approaches, dramatized in the song “The Woman in You.”
“There is another woman inside you,” he sings, “even though you don’t know. It’s a woman I was looking for, a woman I want to draw a picture of. That is the other woman inside you. Your smile sparkles over the stream on a clear morning. Your portrait is flickering in the candlelight. A beautiful woman radiating her beauty. She is born again.”
Utamaro’s portraits sell wildly and turn Okita into a celebrity.
Disaster strikes when the reigning ruler, Okitsugu Tanuma, a man who long tolerated the excesses of the red-light district, is replaced by his rival, Sadanobu Matsudaira, a staunch opponent of the city’s culture. The new ruler bans all manner of arts and entertainment, including the courtesan portraits that had made Utamaro famous and successful. Not only does Matsudaira ban these practices, but he seizes the artists’ assets and places them, handcuffed, under house arrest.
Under this repressive new regime, Utamaro is asked to paint the portrait of a warrior, which he refuses to do on principle, agonizing over his turn in fortune while wearing handcuffs. He wonders aloud what people two hundred years later might think, and our kabuki narrator explains that one art form—music—became a vehicle of protest known as rock ‘n’ roll. “Resistance to authority that Utamaro showed with ukiyo-e (woodblock prints) is like what today’s youth do with music,” says the narrator.
“I understand that spirit of resistance called rock,” Utamaro declares. “I am living in the same time with you. Dreams, separation, tearing, meaninglessness, setbacks, friendship, nostalgia, oblivion, decadence, loneliness, fatigue, temptation, misunderstanding, defeat, and despair. These are friends of me and you.”
Utamaro is joined by the full ensemble for the program’s final number, a rousing anthem to resistance and determination called “Rock Land”:
I am living in the same time with you,
feeling lonely in a crowd,
looking on with nostalgia from a cold street corner,
confused by my old diaries,
as I dance fatigued at a bar before dawn,
as I drape my arm casually across a bench of age-old stone,
waiting for a long-awaited dream,
while I am laughing and saying life is full of good-byes,
while I realize I face only despair in the future,
believing in victory though it may never come to me.
Go across the highway and run through the side roads.
My friend, let’s sing a cry of the soul.
I am living with you in Rock Land.
In 1804, Utamaro was jailed for three days and handcuffed for fifty days. Two years later, after his release, he died. The program’s final slide affirms that “Utamaro’s soul has never stopped living among Japanese people in the two hundred years since his death.”