Home > Publications > NDL Newsletter > No. 201, August 2015

National Diet Library Newsletter

No. 201, August 2015

A collection of prize-winning designs for theater drop curtains:
A trinity of practicality, craftsmanship, and advertising

Risa Ito
Humanities, Maps, Rare Books and Old Materials Division
Reader Services and Collections Department

This article is a translation of the article in Japanese of the same title
in NDL Monthly Bulletin No. 650 (June 2015).

Doncho zuanshu: Kabukiza doncho kensho zuan
Published by: Ito Kochoen, Marumiya Shoten, Unsodo;
[NDL call no.: Ki betsu 7-6-1-5]
Published in 1929;
22 illustrations; 33 cm×49 cm
* Available in the National Diet Library Digital Collections

Here is a short riddle: What can be seen from every seat in the theater except while the play is underway?

There might be more than one answer to this riddle, but the answer I was thinking of is the theater's front drop curtain, known as doncho (緞帳) in Japanese. In Japanese theaters, front drop curtains are an essential accessory that not only separates the audience from the stage but also forms an integral part of stage design, stirring up the spectators' excitement with its gorgeous decorations. But, they also play another important role: They provide advertising space.

The subject of this article is Doncho zuanshu: Kabukiza doncho kensho zuan (緞帳図案集: 歌舞伎座緞帳懸賞図案), a collection of prize-winning designs for drop curtains, created by Marumiya shoten (丸見屋商店) and Ito kochoen (伊藤胡蝶園), which conducted advertising campaigns through media related to kabuki.

Ito kochoen was a cosmetics company during the Meiji era. It produced the Misono oshiroi (御園白粉), Japan's first practicable lead-free face powder. Marumiya shoten was its sole distributor until 1925. Presumably, the development of this lead-free face powder came about because kabuki actors suffered from lead poisoning, and there was a tight bond between the Misono oshiroi and kabuki. Various advertising campaigns were launched in association with kabuki: kabuki actors' stories about cosmetics were used as newspaper advertisements,1 theater parties were held where Misono cosmetics were handed out as souvenirs, and advertisements were (perhaps clumsily) slipped into the "Haiyu gakuya banashi (俳優楽屋話)," a series of interviews of actors and featured in programs handed out at Shochiku (松竹) theaters.2

Taisho jugonen kabukiza nigatsu kogyo
Published by: Kabukiza, Tokyo;
[NDL call no.: Y93-G124]
Published in 1926;
43 pages; 22 cm
* The image is of an essay by ICHIMURA Uzaemon (市村羽左衞門), featured in a program of February 1926. It says in the last lines of the interview that he enjoys bathing with Mitsuwa sekken (soap), a major product of the Marumiya shoten. The comment, however, seems out of context in relation to the rest of the article.

Contests for best drop curtain are thought to have been part of this advertising campaign. The contests also helped advertise the host companies, because the curtain itself was a gigantic ad. A photo published in a newspaper of that time3 shows the drop curtain of the Kabukiza, which includes the words Misono oshiroi, written gaudily in the lower middle part of the curtain.

The NDL holds two books of collections of prize-winning designs: one from a contest held in 1927 at the Meijiza (明治座) and another from a contest held in 1929 at the Kabukiza (歌舞伎座). According to existing newspaper advertisements, it appears that at least four such contests were held. A contest scheduled for the Kabukiza in 1923 was cancelled due to the Great Kanto earthquake but was later held in 1924. The other three contests were held at the Shimbashi embujo (新橋演舞場) in 1924, at the Meijiza in 1927, and at the Kabukiza in 1929. It is unclear, though, whether the collections of prize-winning designs were published after the two contests in 1924. Prominent artists, such as KAWAI Gyokudo, KABURAKI Kiyokata, and HIRAFUKU Hyakusui were invited as judges. There were also short-term exhibitions of superior designs held after the contests of the Shimbashi embujo and Kabukiza.4

Doncho zuanshu: Meijiza doncho kensho zuan
Published by: Marumiya Shoten, Unsodo;
[NDL call no.: 417-45]
Published in 1927;
30 illustrations; 33 cm×51 cm
* Available in the National Diet Library Digital Collections

Doncho zuanshu: Meijiza doncho kensho tosen zuan: Mitsuwa sekken honpo marumiya shoten boshu.
Published by: Marumiya Shoten, Unsodo;
[NDL call no.: Toku 277-226]
Published in 1927;
4 illustrations; 32 cm
* Available in the National Diet Library Digital Collections
* The NDL holds two versions of Meijiza doncho kensho tosen zuan. This one carries two designs in one page, and is assumed to be an abridged version of the above. Preface is the same.

According to TERAISHI Shosaku, a dyeing and weaving expert who designed various drop curtains himself, the personal history of SERIZAWA Keisuke, another prominent artisan, says that the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923 interrupted his work on the design of a drop curtain for a contest at the Kabukiza. If the earthquake had not occurred, a drop curtain designed by SERIZAWA might have been hung at the Kabukiza.5

It is said that the vertically opening drop curtains, which are still used today, were first installed in 1879 by the Shintomiza (新富座).6 On the other hand, the first figured brocade drop curtains, which are also popular today, did not appear until 1951 at the Asahi kaikan (朝日会館) in Osaka. Before then, drop curtains were painted, embroidered, or appliquéd. Thus, the designs recorded in the above collections were intended to be made by one of these methods. This fact accounts for the difference in style and pattern compared to today's curtains.

Traditional drop curtains made by skilled artisans are considered works of art, and the passion towards these curtains appear to be unique to Japan.7 If you ever have a chance to visit a Japanese theater, be sure to take note of the drop curtains and their place in Japanese culture.

To the head of this page

Reference (in Japanese):

  1. ITO Sakae, Chichito sono jigyo, 1934. [NDL call no.: GK65-30]
  2. TOITA Yasuji, "Mitsuwa Bunko," Robi no taiwa, Sangatsu shobo, 1978. [NDL call no.: KD411-23]
  3. "Kabukiza hatsu kaijo to goryo Misono oshiroi no doncho " Tokyo Asahi Shimbun, January 6, 1925
  4. Tokyo Asahi Shimbun, April 19, 1925
    Yomiuri Shimbun, April 18, 1929
  5. TERAISHI Shosaku, Doncho monogatari, Senshoku to seikatsu sha, 1995. [NDL call no.: KB441-E92]
    * However, according to a newspaper advertisement, the due date for the design was August 31, 1923, the day before the Great Kanto Earthquake occurred.
  6. NAGASE Minoru, "Nihon ni okeru doncho no rekishi," Zenkoku kobunkyo tsushin 20, 1996.7.20. [NDL call no.: Z71-R520]
  7. Shochiku Co., Ltd., "Kabuki iroha: Kabuki no ippin wo teniireru: Orimono hen," Kabuki bito. http://www.kabuki-bito.jp/special/tepco/42/index.html Accessed on June 30, 2015.

To the head of this page