Site navigation

The Ideas Store

All contents are Copyright © 2006-2013 John M Blundall and Stephen Foster or is part of The John M Blundall Collection unless stated otherwise.

ONOE KIKUGORO V - 1844 - 1903

Onoe Kikugoro was described as an all-round actor – ‘Man of a Thousand Faces’ – an actor who can play any role. Born in Asakusa, grandson of Kikugoro III. Despite his work in traditional Kabuki plays, he worked to adapt old styles to new tastes.

There is little doubt that Kikugoro V was a very popular actor celebrated in vast numbers of woodblock prints, primarily by Toyohara Kunichika. One series of prints had the title Baiko Hyaku-shu No Uchi’, - ‘One Hundred Roles of Onoe Baiko’. He was also featured on Japanese postage stamps.

In 1897 a film with the title ‘Momijigari’ – ‘Maple Viewing’ was made, with Onoe Kikugoro and Ichikawa Danjuro in the leading roles. He played male roles as well a number of onagata (female roles). One role  he performed in a film, was the character Princess Sarashina disguised as an ogress.

One of his innovations was to perform characters based on the marionettes of the D’Arc Troupe who visited Japan. A dance play ‘Marionettes Imitating the Sound of a Bell’, was given in the Ichimura Za in July 1894 in which Onoe Kikugoro V imitates marionettes, for example a marionette on stilts. Photographs in a Japanese journal show Kikugoro in this role, also a poster showing a montage of traditional marionette theatre turns.

The performances at the Ichimura Za were packed out, despite the intense heat of a very hot summer. The D’Arc Troupe were to return to the UK in summer 1894, but the success of performances ensured that it stayed much longer. His enthusiasm for the marionette performances led Kikugoro to a friendship with the company and D’Arc, often watching the marionette performances and engaging in dialogues with principle members of the troupe during the intervals in the performances.

The D’Arc Troupe had a Japanese manager – Matsune Suekichi, he died in 1913 at the age of 63. When D’Arc returned to the UK Matsune took over the puppets and stage properties and continued to give performances. After the death of Matsune Suekichi, a certain Mr Matsushima and his two sons continued to perform with the marionettes until the end of the 1920s in the Hanayashiki (Flower Residence), an amusement park that still exists. The store at the Hanayashiki was said to have contained all kinds of puppets, including dissecting skeletons and all kinds of insects, apparently made by D’Arc.

A Triptych by Oji Kochoro – Kunisada III, shows five characters including Onoe Eisaburo as a foreign woman. Onoe Kikugoro V as an Englishman (Drunken stilt walking clown), Onoe Ushinosuke (infant child’s stage name of Kikugoro VI), as skeleton and Nakamura Fukusuke as a foreign woman.

A Single woodblock print by Tsukioka Kogyo (1869-1927) who made a specialism of Noh theatre prints, showing the proscenium and stage of the D’Arc marionette theatre on which a drunken stilt-walking clown is seen in performance. There is a small panel on the top-right of the print showing dissecting skeleton.

Kogyo was the son of an innkeeper in Nihonbashi, Tokyo. His mother married the ukiyo-e master Tsukioka Yoshitoshi in 1884 and the young Kogyo took lessons and a new surname from his stepfather. He also studied with the painter and ukiyo-e printmaker Ogata Gekko (1859-1920) who gave him the name Kogyo. Kogyo was a craftsman and print designer, worthy enough to inherit Yoshitoshi’s artists seals in October 1910 and carry on the practise of traditional ukiyo-e printmaking.

Kikugoro V with Danjuro IX were considered to be two of the greatest actors that Japan has ever produced. Although they both continued the legacy left to them by a long line of their actor ancestors, the decline in critical audiences for Kabuki and traditional forms let them seek greater satisfaction in their own work. Aware of influences from other countries they preserved traditional forms and styles and also created new forms. They developed less gaudy costumes and grotesque make-up to relate to their more human styles of acting.

In Kabuki forms, to Kikugoro V historical plays were less interesting to him and he tended to excel in domestic plays, plays of ordinary people of the era acted in traditional classical style. Previous to the Meiji Era the male status was indicated by his hair style. In the Meiji Era it became the fashion for all classes to wear close-cropped hair. This led to the development of what were known as ‘Cropped Hair Plays’. The appearance of characters wearing costume and hair-styles of the Meiji Era became an new move towards the development of modern or contemporary theatre in Japan.

The new experiments were not without problems but, in general terms they had a positive effect on the Kabuki theatre. One factor was, that after the presentation of a command performance for the Meiji Emperor (1887) the status of the actor in Japan was assured.

The history of Bunraku and Kabuki are inextricably linked and share the same repertoire. Each year, it is the practice for three kabuki actors performing the role of puppeteers to manipulate a fourth actor in the style of the Bunraku figure, this in recognition of the Kabuki origins. It is interesting that Kikugoro must have been fully aware of the Bunraku, and presumably other types of Japanese puppet, but it was the marionettes from the UK that had a major impact on his work. Kikugoro was also familiar with British plays, and it seems that he adapted them for a Japanese audience.

In the middle of the 18th century puppet theatres in Japan overshadowed the Kabuki. As a result of government restrictions on live actors Kabuki lost its leading practitioners. The work of the greatest writers became focused on the puppet theatres. Later, Kabuki actors took the plots, imitated the movements of the puppets and adapted declamation styles.

The Bunraku remained popular with audiences, but it was said that they were more impressed by watching the live Kabuki actors performing as puppets. Late in the 18th century Kabuki re-established its dominance over the Bunraku, and remains the most popular form of classical theatre in Japan.