Flowers of the Theatrical World: Actor Morita Kan'ya XIII as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables
(Rien no Hana: Jusan sei Morita Kanya no Jan Berujan)
signed at right, Toyonari ga with round date seal Taisho ju (Taisho 10 ), with rectangular artist's approval seal Toyonari on lower left margin, published by Watanabe Shozaburo, 1921
dai oban tate-e 16 1/2 by 11 3/8 in., 41.9 by 29 cm
The actor Morita Kan'ya XIII (1885-1932) is in the role of Jean Valjean from the play Les Miserables performed at the Yuraku-za Theater in December 1920. The theater opened in 1908 and was Japan's first Western-style theater with upright chairs instead of zashiki (tatami seating). The drama, based on the epic novel (one of the longest ever written) of the same name by Victor Hugo (1802-1885) which recounts the struggles and redemption of the former convict Jean Valjean, seems uniquely suited for adaption to kabuki. Kan'ya was a versitle actor known for his efforts to develop new dramas, and for his great voice, an attribute closely associated with the role of Jean Valjean in any era.
Toyonari developed his remarkable actor portraits based on bromides (buromaido) photographs of the actors in character that were sold to fans at the performances. A bromide of Kan'ya in the role of Jean Valjean showed the full figure of the actor standing in profile at a moment when he is overcome with conflicting emotions; he holds a silver candlestick which he was accused of stealing but has now been gifted to him. The lighting in the photograph is a visual metaphor of Jean Valjean's transformation: he is turned away from the dark shadows behind him, and faces the bright light before him. The woodblock print by Toyonari captures the dramatic moment, highlighting the dark background and shadows cast by the light onto the actor's face, while faithfully rendering the grimacing teeth, furrowed brow and hunched shoulders of Kan'ya. The saturated baren sujizuri (swirls) printing in the background deepens shadows creeping on to the actor's shoulders.
Kato Junzo, comp., Kindai Nihon hanga taikei, 1975-76, Vol. 1, pls. 142
Koyama Shuko, Beautiful Shin Hanga- Revitalization of Ukiyo-e, Tokyo Metropolitan Edo-Tokyo Museum, 2009, p. 74, no. 2-42
Andreas Marks, Seven Masters: 20th-Century Japanese Prints from the Wells Collection, 2015 p. 5 frontispiece detail; p. 69: and p. 76, no. 32 and 32a (photo of the actor)
Minneapolis Institute of Art (collections.artsmia.org), accession no. 2002.161.53
(inv. no. 10-5189)
Scholten Japanese Art is open Monday - Friday, and some Saturdays by appointment only
Contact Katherine Martin at
(212) 585-0474 or email
to schedule a visit between 11am and 4pm preferably for no more than two individuals at a time.
Visitors are asked to wear face masks and practice social distancing at their discretion.
site last updated
December 1, 2021
Scholten Japanese Art
145 West 58th Street, suite 6D
New York, New York 10019
ph: (212) 585-0474
fx: (212) 585-0475
Join our mailing list...