What is your favorite dancer portrait? I am tempted by a Kagamijishi Dancer from Itō Shinsui

I am always tempted by objects I can relate to dance and dance history. I recently came across a beautiful print of a dancer from a Itō Shinsui’s selection of works at the Museum Rietberg in Zurich. Itō Shinsui is a well-known woodblock printmaking (Ukyio-e) artist from the Shin Hanga period, at the beginning of the twentieth century. The print shown below is from 1950 and depicts a Kagamijishi dancer.

Kagamijishi, color woodblock print from 1950 by Itō Shinsui, Japan © courtesy Taiyo no Hikari Foundation, Japan

The landscape 49 by 35 cm format print depicts a female character dancer in the centre of its composition, her head slightly bowed, white flowers in a hairpin and a small, perfectly formed red bow at the centre of her hairline. Clad in a white to purple kimono decorated with two large coloured butterflies on the left sleeve and tied by a bright red flower patterned obi, the dancer’s body forms an upward sloping diagonal to the viewer’s eye. In front of this diagonal, the character holds the second line that marks the composition’s structure, a subtly patterned bright yellow sleeve rising towards the viewer’s left. The sleeve is capped by a small brownish lion head, likely made of wood.The lion’s face seems poised for mischief, as if any second it will fly out of the corner of the print, drawing the dancer along.

The Kagamijishi dance identified in the title of the print is a Kabuki performance, translated as the Lion Dance.This type of Kabuki dance was first performed by Ichikawa Danjuro 9th in the Meiji period (1870s). In this dance, the female character Yayoi is a lady-in-waiting who dances for the Shogun. After she puts her hand into the lion mask, the spirit of the lion possesses her. The same actor would have played the graceful female role as well as the violent spirit in this two-part dance.

The print is perhaps slightly misleading at first, for it is displayed in a series of female subject prints and though it is a female character we are looking at, the performer embodying the character is almost surely a man. The print is believed to be based on a painting from 1923, and male dancers were the only performers allowed on the kabuki stage. Animistic dances like the Kagamijishi are less common in Japan than in other Asian countries, such as China or Bhutan. There is a 1936 documentary recording of the full performance by Japanese director Yasujirō Ozu, which is likely to be the closest to a performance Itō Shinsui could have seen himself. The pose depicted in the print was inspired by the moments in 17:15 to 17:40 from that documentary, right before Yayoi exits the stage.

The quality of the printmaking throughout the entire show is impressive. If you still have a chance to catch the Rietberg exhibition I recommend you to sit through the video explaining the woodblock printmaking technique in detail. If not, I found this good introduction from a short artist portrait documentary by Michelle Tsen:

What do you think of the Kagamijishi dancer? Do you have a dancer portrait you really like or a favorite Japanese woodblock print?

Notes: For a brief introduction to kabuki dance and repertoire see the Japanese Arts Council page. “Itō Shinsui” the second part selection can be seen at Museum Rietberg until 08 January 2017.
Inspired by: Tempted


  1. […] week I finally managed to connect zen Mondays to my favorite writing topic, the intersection of dance and art, which makes me twice as grateful for the […]

Leave a Reply