Just as you would expect with any important theatrical event today, major Edo-period kabuki performances inspired a
wide assortment of printed material.
Colorful, intriguing actor prints (yakusha-e) stand out in most people's minds, but the woodblock industry also
turned out products like texts for home study (e-iri nehon), actor-related poetry surimono, critic's reviews
(hyobanki), and reduced-sized black and white prints for hobbyists (sumizuri-e), not to mention novelty
souvenirs and fan mementos of various stripes.
And then there were the banzuke. Banzuke means "list" or "program" and along with the above,
all competing with the painted hoardings and cloth banners on the street for a fan's attention, was an additional flurry
of washi paper that included advance promotional flybills (tsuji banzuke), illustrated pamphlets (ehon banzuke),
charts with playful actor rankings (mitate banzuke), broadsheets announcing a theater's annual line-up (kaomise
banzuke), and more.
Today, such ephemera are hard to find and, since they are generally without color or even images, even harder for a non-specialist
to develop an interest in. But archival institutions love banzuke, and a serious kabuki researcher can spend an entire career
poring over them.
Indeed, it is thanks to boring-looking banzuke that the important work of assigning specific dates and theaters and play
names to actor prints can progress year by year. And sometimes one of the unassuming sheets can offer up far more — a name
or a hand-written comment that contributes to the complex jigsaw puzzle that scholars are trying to piece together to better
understand Edo period society.
It is also possible for a banzuke to excite a distinct non-academic type like myself.
Several years ago when Fig. 1 (illustrated on the right) fell into my hands, I knew from the general layout that this hosoban stencil sheet was
part of the charming Kyoto publishing tradition called Gion nerimono, prints published over during the 1810s to commemorate
the fancy costume parade of courtesans that (c. 1765 to 1839) complemented the ancient capital's 1,000 year-old Gion Festival.
Such prints are never dated in reference works — "ca. 1818" being the stock caption. Worse, my hosoban sported
pigments, a look and an artist's name, Harusada (n.d.), that seemed to place it at least a decade later than all others. What
was the deal? The puzzle gnawed at me.
Imagine my joy
I finally grew resigned to never knowing any more than the names and affiliation of the beauties posing as silk workers —
Riki and Kotami from the teahouse Tamaya. However, the other day a Gion e-banzuke (illustrated program) — a detail
of which can be seen in Fig. 2 (at top) — peeked out at me from a print dealer's bin.
Though I was aware of the existence of Gion banzuke, (inevitable, given the Japanese inability to enjoy an event without a
program in their hands), they are truly scarce and, like most of their kabuki cousins, sometimes consist of simply a non-descript
list of names.
In comparison, this e-banzuke — a single sheet measuring 35 x 47 cm — features in thumbnail an expansive
overview of the entire parade in five colors (stenciled), and is signed Nagahide (fl. 1805-42), the dean of Gion nerimono
hosoban print designers.