Exhibition Review: Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Until 8 Dec 2024. Curated by Dr Clare Pollard. Free entry.
Kabuki Kimono is the Ashmolean Museum’s new exhibition – displaying six of celebrated Kabuki performer Bandō Tamasaburō V’s kimonos and obi (sash). This is the first exhibition of its type in the UK.
Bandō Tamasaburō V is Japan’s most renowned onnagata and designated as a Living National Treasure. Onnagata is a highly specialised role in traditional Japanese Kabuki theatre, in which male actors portray female characters. The type of characters onnagata can portray include women of all ages, as well as spirits, demons and other super natural beings.
In Kabuki theatre, onnagata wear elaborate and extremely precious costumes, handmade by Japan’s leading artisans. A typical onnagata costume consists of a kimono, an obi (a sash), elaborate wigs and makeup, and props. An onnagata’s costume provides the audience with visual prompts as to the character’s age, status, state of mind, the atmosphere of the scene, and the season.
Over-robe with a design of New Year's decorations including pine decorations, sacred paper strips, dried persimmons and a spiny lobster. The decorations are designed to sway from side to side to emphasise the tipsy character's movements. © Takashi Kashihara. The full costume weighs over 40kg.
In the Western theatrical tradition, performers typically have limited involvement in the design of their costumes. In contrast, Kabuki performers, particularly renowned performers such as Bandō Tamasaburō V, often play a more active role in shaping the design of their costumes.
Bandō Tamasaburō V has played a substantial role in contributing to the design of each costume, working closely with teams of artisans typically over the course of an entire year. He is well known for his attention to detail, sometimes even supervising the embroidery process to ensure that the artisan accurately captures his precise vision.
Over-robe with a design of a flame drum, sunbeams, cherry blossom and curtains embroidered onto a red silk crépe ground. Costume for the courtesan Agemaki of the Miura Brothel in the play Sukeroku, Flower of Edo.
The costumes on display showcase a huge variety of textile techniques, including weaving, dyeing, embroidery, and sculpture using the most precious of materials.
Over-robe with a design of peonies hand-painted in ink and gold pigment on a finely woven white silk ground. This robe was painted in ink and gold by the well-known artist Murai Toshio (died 2022). The gold catches the light on stage.
These techniques are designed to bring the costumes to life on stage – some are designed to move in specific ways or look different in different lighting. Some of the costumes are designed to create optical illusions, such as the extraordinarily ornate obi (sash), which portrays a carp swimming up a waterfall.
Obi sash with a crap ascending a waterfall, embroidered on a pale blue-green satin ground. © Takashi Kashihara.
The carp embroidered in three dimensions, swims among strands of elaborate golden rope, which are attached at the top and swing freely at the bottom. When the performer moves, the ropes swing, flowing over the fish, giving the optical illusion of a live fish swimming up falling water, rippling with reflected sunlight.
This is a sneak peak of the over robe, which will be displayed in the next set of costumes from December 2024. This kimono, designed by Bandō Tamasaburō V, was created by one artisan, and took over a year.
Being able to see these extraordinary costumes up close is a rare privilege, even within Japan. Anyone who is interested in theatre, costume design, textiles, fashion, embroidery, or art will enjoy spending time at this beautiful exhibition.
If you enjoyed this review, you may enjoy reading about the V&A's Diva exhibition, which you can find here. You might also enjoy reading my other Ashmolean reviews here or my other posts on Japanese culture here.
Feature image of Bandō Tamasaburō V in a stage performance, wearing costume for the Courtesan Agemaki. Photo © Naotake Fukuda.
Unless otherwise stated, all photos taken by me. © Catherine Flutsch.
In December 2024, the costumes will be replaced with another six costumes from Bandō Tamasaburō V’s collection.