The Paintings of Kosaka Dance: Presenting the Heroes of the Samurai
Kowaka dance was a popular performing art in Japan from the Muromachi period (1392–1573) to the Edo period (1603–1868). Many dances were themed around the exploits of the warrior class, with key sources of inspiration including tales from the Genpei War, the life of Minamoto no Yoshitsune, and accounts of the revenge of the Soga brothers. As such, kowaka dance was particularly popular among military commanders during the Warring States period. One famous episode recounts how the warlord Oda Nobunaga performed part of the Atsumori kowaka dance before the Battle of Okehazama. Kowaka dance and Noh theater received the patronage of the shogunate government entering the Edo period, with the dance rising to prominence as a performative art of the warrior class.
Kowaka dance numbers also became a popular form of literature thanks to their captivating tales (essentially digested versions of war chronicles), with scenes from the dances also depicted in visual form on handscrolls, picture books and folding screens. Thirty-six standard kowaka numbers were published in illustrated woodblock-printed Texts for Kowaka Dances at the start of the Edo period. These helped popularize the artform among the general populace.
Kowaka dance declined as a performing art at the end of the shogunate, with most people unaware of it today. However, it left behind a number of texts, tales and paintings, many dating back to the 17th century. These include the 47-volume sets of Illustrated Texts for Kowaka Dances held at Umi-Mori Art Museum. These take the form of illustrated handscrolls or books, and it is thought they were originally owned and enjoyed by feudal lords. Decorated with gold and vivid colors, these splendid paintings reveal just how much the artform was cherished by families from the warrior class.
This exhibition is the first to focus on paintings based around this relatively-unknown theme. Dating from the Momoyama period to the Edo period, these items provide a glimpse into the vivid, vibrant world of illustrated tales so beloved by Japan’s warrior class.
Venue: Umi-Mori Art Museum (10701 Kamegaoka, Ohno, Hatsukaichi, Hiroshima)
With the support of: Hiroshima Board of Education and Hatsukaichi City Board of Education
Dates: Saturday, March 2, 2019 to Sunday, May 12, 2019
Hours: 10:00-17:00 (Last entry: 16:30)
Closed: Monday (However, the museum will be open the Monday of April 29 and May 6), Tuesday of May 7
General admission: 1,000 yen
High school/university students: 500 yen
Junior high school students and younger: Free
*Admission is half price for people with disability certificates, etc. One accompany person is admitted free of charge.
*Groups of 20 or over will receive a discount of 200 yen per person.
Part One – Texts for Kowaka Dances: Tracing the Identity of the Warrior Class
Kowaka dance is a type of performing art based on episodes from tales popular among military commanders during Japan’s Warring States period. Thirty-six standard kowaka numbers were published in illustrated, woodblock-printed Texts for Kowaka Dances at the start of the Edo period. These inspired the creation of lavish illustrated handscrolls and books. Examples include this museum’s Illustrated Texts for Kowaka Dances and Nihon University Library’s Collection of Numbers for Kowaka Dances. It is thought these were all once owned by feudal lords like the Matsudaira clan. All well as objects to be viewed and enjoyed, these luxurious handscrolls and books were also treasured as valuable heirlooms.
Particularly-cherished numbers were immortalized as individual paintings. The most performed piece from the Muromachi period to the start at of the Edo period was Taishokan (The Great Woven Crown). Themed around Fujiwara no Kamatari and the Tamatori legend, this dance also provided the inspiration for many large folding-screen paintings.
Folding Screen with Design of Scenes from The Tale of Taishokan (The Great Woven Crown)
Edo period, 17th century, Tokyo Fuji Art Museum
Part 2 – The Legend of Minamoto no Yoshitsune
Minamoto no Yoshitsune lived a turbulent life that tragically ended when he was hunted down and forced to commit suicide by forces loyal to his brother Minamoto no Yoritomo. Yoshitune’s childhood name was Ushiwakamaru. In adulthood, he distinguished himself in several battles against the Taira clan before finally meeting his end. His exploits were greatly admired by later generations. Tales involving Yoshitune or his mother Tokiwa Gozen (Lady Tokiwa) provide the inspiration for 13 of the 36 standard kowaka numbers. The Fold of the Eboshi Cap was particularly beloved and it featured in many paintings, perhaps because it deals with Yoshitsune’s coming of age ceremony. As time passed, the story of Yoshitune’s life became mythologized. He was the hero in several otogi zoshi fairy tales books produced during kowaka dance’s heyday. These fantastical tales depict Yoshitsune fighting tengu goblins, falling in love with a beautiful, exotic woman, and acquiring a legendary book of military tactics after a long quest, for example.
Folding Screen with Illustrated Handscrolls of the Tale of Yeboshi Ori (The Fold of the Eboshi Cap) on a silver undercoat
Momoyama period, End of the 16th century, Tezen Museum
Part 3 – The Genpei War: Tales of Tragedy and Valor
Lavish illustrated handscrolls and books themed on Genpei War chronicles were produced in volume for feudal lords around the same time as the illustrated texts for kowaka dances. These chronicles included the Hogen Monogatari (The Tale of Hogen), Heiji Monogatari (The Tale of the Heiji Civil War), Heike Monogatari (The Tale of Heike), and the Genpei Josuiki (History of the Rise and Fall of the Minamoto and the Taira Clans), for example. These recounted the dramatic rise of the warrior class. They also included glorious stories detailing the history of several Edo-period military families. Nine kowaka dance numbers are themed on the Genpei War. Atsumori, a dance performed by the warlord Oda Nobunaga before the Battle of Okehazama, is based on tragic events that occurred in the heat of battle, for example. However, kowaka numbers related to the Genpei War are not solely focused on bloody fighting. Over half of them recount Minamoto no Yoritomo’s uprising or extol his subsequent reign. These reveal a celebratory aspect to kowaka dance as a performing art.
Part 4 – The Soga Brothers: A Tale of Youthful Revenge
There are many tales of revenge, but none have had as big an impact on Japanese art as the story of the Soga brothers’ revenge. The boys’ father was killed by Kudo Suketsune, a senior retainer of Minamoto no Yoritomo. The brothers use a hunt held by Yoritomo at Mount Fuji to exact their revenge before dying heroically. This story was recorded for posterity in The Tale of the Soga Brothers. Many paintings based on this story were painted from the Muromachi period onwards. Six kowaka dance numbers recount the brothers’ lives, from their coming-of-age ceremony to their eventual deaths. The Night Attack of the Soga Brothers (which follows the hunt to the final act of revenge) and The Soga Brothers Kill Ten Men (which depicts the brothers’ final stand) were particularly popular themes for folding-screen paintings and illustrated handscrolls and books. The elder brother Juro Sukenari is depicted as a slender, fair-skinned man, while the younger brother Goro Tokimune is shown with striking, wide-open eyes and a seeming pride in his own strength.
Scenes from the Tale of the Soga Brothers
Momoyama period, 16th century, Watanabe Museum