Kitagawa Utamaro, 1753-1806
Comparison of Smiling Faces in the Niwaka Festival of the Green Houses, 2nd Part of the Performances: Yosooi of Matsubaya
(Seiro Niwaka egao kurabe ni no kawari: Matsubaya Yosooi)
signed Utamaro hitsu, with publisher's mark To (Yamaguchiya Chusuke), ca. 1799
oban tate-e 15 3/8 by 10 3/8 in., 39.1 by 26.5 cm
The courtesan Yosooi of the Matsubaya house enjoys a cup of sake while watching two young men about to perform the shishimai (lion dance). Both dancers hold folding fans, one of which we can see is marked with the kanji for shishi (lion), and they carry between them the distinctive lion-headed mask needed for the performance. They are just one troupe of many that will participate in the Niwaka Festival in the Yoshiwara which was held annually on the 8th lunar month. Both men and women wore costumes (frequently cross-gender) and participated in a variety of skits and dances; often with the theme of their performance identified on their folding fans.
Niwaka (lit. 'spontaneous') entertainment originated in the early 1700s as impromptu comedic skits that were performed on the streets or temporary stages, often in association with a shrine festival. The lighthearted performances were first adapted by courtesans in Edo around 1730 but by the mid century the popularity of niwaka had waned. It was revived again by geisha in the 1770s as a more organized event in order to boost business. The Yoshiwara Niwaka Festival included costumed processions, parade floats (in the style of the Gion Festival in Kyoto), and niwaka skits performed primarily by geisha who were sometimes joined by the younger shinzo and kamuro. During the festival the strict regulations regarding access to the pleasure quarters were relaxed, allowing Edoites of all social positions, including women, the opportunity to visit the Yoshiwara and take in the spectacle.
Kiyoshi Shibui, Ukiyo-e Zuten: Utamaro, 1964, p. 102
Gina Collia-Suzuki, The Complete Woodblock Prints of Kitagawa Utamaro, A Descriptive Catalogue, 2009, pp. 527-528
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