Artist: Utagawa Kunisada III (三代目歌川国貞)

Print: Kyōgen jōruri opening - Nakamura Fukusuke IV (中村福助), the woman on the far right - Onoe Ushinosuke II (尾上丑之助) is the skeleton next to her - Onoe Kikugorō V (尾上菊五郎) is the man on stilts - Onoe Eizaburō V (尾上栄三郎) is the woman in the pink dress on the left

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Dates: 1893,created
Dimensions: 30.25 in,15.0 in,Overall dimensions
Medium: Japanese color woodblock prints

Signed: ōju Kōchōrō hitsu
Publisher: Fukuda Kumajirō
Carver: Watanabe Tsunejirō

Related links: Harvard Art Museums; Edo Tokyo Museum; Japan Arts Council; Waseda University - right panel; Hagi Uragami Museum of Art; National Library of Australia; Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts - misattributed as being by Kunichika; Lyon Collection - 18th century Shun'ei print of an actor with a puppet;Lyon Collection - 1954 Sekino print of puppeteer and puppet;

Physical description:

At first glance this triptych might seem a bit jarring to us, even amusing, because it is not at all what we have come to expect from a more traditional Japanese woodblock print. This would be true for both the informed collectors and scholars - read purists - as well as the uninitiated and uninformed viewer. But look again. While the costumes may seem strange to us, the overall layout of this composition fits well into the tradition of kabuki imagery going back into the late 18th century. It isn't just the costuming that draws us in, but the strings of the marionettes and especially the representation of actors as skeletons. But puppetry, think bunraku/jōruri, has a long tradition in Japanese theater and even had a golden age when first productions began as puppet shows, but were quickly adapted to kabuki stage with all-too-human, real life actors. In fact, this triptych, instead of falling outside the tradition of ukiyo images merely shows a progression both of the true creativeness and energy present at the time of artist and the stagecraft it is illustrating.

There is a Shunshō print from 1783 in the Art Institute in Chicago of a maiden being threatened by a skeleton portrayed by Ichikawa Danjūrō V. Besides that, it was common for men dressed all in black, called kuroko, to handle the puppets being shown to their audiences. It doesn't take much of a leap of our imaginations to show life-sized actors as marionettes, does it? (JSV)


Triptych of actors in Western costume and stilts as puppets and skeletons. This is a kyōgen jōruri opening at the Ichimura Theater (Ichimura za kaijō jōruri kyōgen 市村座開場浄瑠璃狂言).

The National Library of Australia states of this triptych:

The Japanese print depicts a scene from Kabuki performance, where well-known actors play roles in western costumes; Nakamura Fukusuke plays a role of a western woman; Onoe Kikugorō plays two roles, one as a British man and the other as a skelton; Onoe Ushinosuke plays another skelton; Onoe Eizaburō plays second western woman.

The actors in the prints were drawn with strings as marionettes are.



1) in Ukiyo-e: The Art of the Japanese Print by Frederick Harris, #195, accompanied by a small color reproduction. Harris writes: "It is difficult to tell if these actors are imitating puppets as they have strings attached to them or if they are part of a humorous play that included skeletons." He also places the date as the 1880s and not as 1893 as others do.

2) in black and white in The Arts of Meiji Japan 1868-1912: Changing Aesthetics, Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Barry Till, p. 81.

3) in color in Japanese Prints: Images of the Floating World, Barry Davies Oriental Art, #191, illustrated on p. 201.