Natori Shunsen
Japan, 1886-1960, print of actor Nakamura Ganjiro.

Natori Shunsen Japan, 1886-1960, print of actor Nakamura Ganjiro.

From traditional kabuki prints to edgy micropop, Canberra is turning Japanese this month.

A new show at the National Gallery of Australia, Stars of the Tokyo Stage, evokes the glamour of the kabuki theatre with dozens of prints by Natori Shunsen, one of the last masters in the art of kabuki actor portraits.

The dramatic prints are shown alongside a series of extravagant kabuki costumes, all from the gallery’s own collection.

Natori Shunsen Japan, 1886-1960, print of performer Nakamura Utaemon.

Natori Shunsen Japan, 1886-1960, print of performer Nakamura Utaemon.

Curator Lucie Folan said it was rare to see a range of such costumes off the stage.   

“Traditionally, these weren’t kept - they weren’t thought of as works of art, and actors often wanted to keep pieces of them so they cut them up,” she said.

“There are a few collections in Japan that have kabuki costumes, but no one else has thought to buy them. They’re made using these age-old techniques, they’re designed by actors and costumiers and theatre producers.”

Sky-flying fish, by Makiko Kudo, part of Winter Garden at M16

Sky-flying fish, by Makiko Kudo, part of Winter Garden at M16

And the portraits of kabuki superstars, while mostly produced in the early 20th century, seemed strikingly modern today.

“[Shunsen] was part of this major print revival, reinvigorating this print tradition at the same time as the kabuki theatre was really finding its feet again, so it was really this modern golden age for both printmaking and the kabuki theatre,” she said.

“[In] art historically, this period has been seen as a period of decline, but when you look at these, the technique is incredible. They’ve got embossing all through them, really crisp lines, using the same traditional techniques.”

It’s clear from the portraits that the very modern contemporary Japanese aesthetic of anime, or film animation, was inspired by kabuki.

But another new show, at M16 Artspace in Griffith, showcases the extreme flipside of the more traditional kabuki works.

Presented by the Japan Foundation and the Embassy of Japan, Winter Garden is an examination of contemporary Japan through the lens of “micropop”, a recent movement in Japanese art.

The show, which includes drawings, paintings and video works by 14 Japanese artists, is a glimpse into the art world of a new generation.

While opening the show last week, lecturer at the ANU Centre for Art History and Art Theory Olivia Meehan said Winter Garden gave an insight into everyday life for Japanese artists.

“Although we’re presented with works that appear vibrant and, at times, childlike in their execution, they ultimately capture the responses of a generation working in Japan during the first wave of so-called ‘globalisation’,” she said.

The gallery is also showing works by artists from all over the world who have been inspired by Japan.

Stars of the Tokyo Stage: Natori Shunsen’s kabuki actor prints is showing at the National Gallery of Australia until October 12.

Winter Garden: The Exploration of the Micropop Imagination in Contemporary Japanese Art is showing at M16 Artspace until July 27.