You Won’t Succeed on the Internet if You Don’t Have Any Cats

Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Well, it was probably inevitable that this blog would eventually stoop to posting cat pics, so I’m biting the bullet and doing it early. Luckily, this is a pretty fascinating piece, so there’s more to say than, “Aww, how cute! Those cats think they’re people!”

I saw this print in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston while I was holding a class session there with my Theatre History students at Northeastern University. There’s an entire room in the MFA’s Art of Japan gallery devoted to prints, many more of which are eye-catching (and fodder for future posts!). You should go see them! I had to start with this one, since it has so much going on, in addition to being really amusing.

As the catalog entry from the MFA indicates, this is a parody of a popular kabuki scene from around 1847-52. This was a time when kabuki was still probably the most popular form of theatre in Japan, but it also had to negotiate some pretty harsh restrictions imposed by the government. That wasn’t anything new: women had been banned from the kabuki stage in 1629, in part because they had a tendency to get into affairs with theatregoers, and then boys were banned in 1652 – for the same reason. There were also plenty of rules about what you could or couldn’t depict onstage, so that meant current events or unpleasant depictions of those in power were forbidden.

Things were even worse when this print was made, due to something called the Tempo (or “Tenpo”) Reforms. Japan went through a rough patch in the early nineteenth century, and these reforms were supposed to fix things and reinvigorate the nation. That goal could apparently be achieved by cracking down on immorality, and so in 1842 kabuki theatres were told that they had to move into the red-light districts in the suburbs, since theatre was considered to be on a par with prostitution (Faith Bach, “Breaking the Kabuki Actors’ Barriers: 1868-1900 in A Kabuki Reader: History and Performance, 152). Finally, prints depicting actors were banned (remember when your mom told you that you couldn’t put that shirtless Justin Timberlake and/or racy Britney Spears poster up in your room?), which meant that artists had to get creative when they wanted to produce an image of one of these popular subjects (Harold Bolitho in The Cambridge History of Japan, Vol. 5: The Nineteenth Century, p. 144).

Hence Utagawa Kuniyoshi and his two kitty thespians in the picture. Utagawa was a major printmaker of the time who had a real thing for cats, which worked out pretty well for him when he was told that he couldn’t portray actual actors. Instead, he recreates a popular scene from kabuki with his beloved felines. The scene is from a play about a courtesan named Akoya. The play takes place way back in medieval Japan, a favorite setting for kabuki playwrights (a little bit like what Shakespeare did with medieval England). Akoya is in love with a warrior named Kagekiyo, who has escaped his enemies. Another warrior named Shigetada arrives to interrogate Akoya and to find out if she knows where her lover is. His henchman want to use various instruments of torture to do that, but he instead brings out three actual instruments, which he tells her to play. In the picture, she’s playing a stringed instrument called a koto while one of her interrogators watches. She plays beautifully, and sings of how she feels about Kagekiyo and how she hopes that he’s safe. That’s enough to convince Shigetada of her innocence, so he calls off his goons and lets her go. (It’s not a scholarly source, but this site has a good summary of the play.)

It’s a touching story, and I can understand why the play was so popular, but I love that Utagawa’s use of these cats totally undercuts the sentimentality. According to the sign at the MFA, the writing that covers much of the top half of the print contains “script excerpts full of meowing sounds, feline references, and puns on the real titles.” Not only do I appreciate the humor (or I would if I could read Japanese), but I love that this is evidence of a culture that cares so much about theatre that it enjoys making fun of it a bit, as opposed to taking it completely seriously, even in a time when it’s under attack from the authorities. It’s not the same thing, but it brings to mind the caricatures for which Al Hirschfeld was so famous: they were evidence of a time when theatrical figures were so well-known that a cartoonist like Hirschfeld could make fun of them and expect people to know about the butt of the (usually good-natured) joke. I’m not going to pretend to know how to do it, but I hope that, in a time when theatre people are perpetually wringing their hands about how to get butts in seats and engage with audiences, we can recover some of that self-awareness and sense of humor.

You guys, I’ve been so good, I posted a picture of cats on the internet and tried to write intelligent, non-gimmicky things (“50 Reasons Why These Cats Are Totally Killing It at Kabuki”). So please forgive me this final indulgence: play ’em off, Keyboard Cat!

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