Kubota and the theatre

11th March 2019

noh theatre japan

Itchiku Kubota’s interest in the theatre began in 1940, and it was an interest that was to stay with him for the rest of his life. When he was a young man of only twenty-three, he worked for a period with a master of stage design for kabuki and shinpa (‘New School’). Kubota produced costumes with special designs for well-known actors and actresses, some of whom remained as personal as well as professional acquaintances for many years after.

The young Kubota also began to study traditional Japanese dance (Nihon buyou) while he was designing costumes, and that experience also gave him greater insight into costume and textiles. During his detention in Siberia as a prisoner of war after World War II ended, Kubota noted that he was able to put his training in the theatre to practical use when he and fellow prisoners tried to take their minds off the rigors of the camp by forming a theatre troupe and staging famous dramas.

Although his situation at the time had forced him to abandon his dream of reviving tsujigahana, he said he consoled himself to some degree by drawing tsujigahana patterns on the stage costumes, which were made of paper because there was no spare cloth. In addition to creating costumes out of whatever materials could be salvaged, Kubota was also in charge of stage property, make-up, and all other production needs. The productions were a great success in the camp, even among the guards, but eventually the performances were banned and the prisoners had no other entertainment to lighten their free time.

Kubota was released from the camp after three years and returned to Japan and to his work as a dyer. He also returned to his pursuit of the secrets of tsujigahana. Years later, after he had introduced Itchiku tsujigahana, his own version of this elusive textile technique, to the world and began to reap some of the success that had eluded him for so long, he began to revive his theatrical interests, both through incorporating theatrical elements into his own work and designing costumes for special dance or theatrical performances.

One of his fashion shows, the Itchiku Tsujigahana Grand Show, was truly a theatrical extravaganza, intended to present his own version of how kimono should be worn as well as his newest designs. Kubota also began developing his own theatre productions in which his spectacular kimono were worn by well-known actors.

In 1984, he provided costumes for Dance of the Dream Robe at the Shinbashi Theatre in Tokyo. The performance was based on The Picture Scroll of the Origin of the Kegon Sect of Buddhism, a work designated as a National Treasure of Japan.

A few years later, Kubota was invited to create costumes for an original Noh performance, The Baptism of Jesus. The play, written by Father Kakichi Kadowaki, a Catholic priest and professor at Sofia University, was choreographed and directed by the Noh master Naohiko Umewaka. It was staged at the Vatican before Pope John Paul II on Christmas Eve of 1988. Kubota also attended the performance.

Kubota based many of his art kimono on the uchikake, a traditional full-length, unbelted outer robe with a trailing, weighted hem. He eventually increased the kimono’s overall length significantly, often adding borders to expand their size even further. These oversized kimono were ideally suited to Noh theatrical performances, where costumes are often multi-layered, with unusual textures and bold designs that help to create the larger-than-life personas of actors on a Noh stage.

Kubota’s innovative designs, his creative use of light and color, and the complex mix of stitch-resist dyeing, ink painting, embroidery and gold or silver that embellished these resplendent garments helped to capture the same expressive elegance and gravitas required for traditional Noh costumes.

When Kubota built his museum in 1994, he also built a Noh stage where he would arrange for performances to take place almost every year. Many of the performances were Maimu, a style of theatrical performance that has much in common with Noh but focuses on more modern works. Kubota also developed his own style of performance art that he called ‘Itchiku Noh.’ Sometimes kimono were specially made for these performances, and other times works such as those from the Universe and Mount Fuji series would appear on stage. These are among Kubota’s most vividly designed pieces, and the drama inherent in the garments adds to the theatrical tension created in a performance.

After Kubota’s death, his eldest son, now head of the atelier, continued the relationship with the theatre. The atelier created a quartet of kimono, the Cherry Blossom Tetralogy, for Takarazuka, the famous all-female theatre troupe with a theatre in Tokyo. The Noh performances so beloved by Kubota are still held at the Itchiku Kubota Art Museum. “The performance,” Kubota said, “combines arts of the modern era into a whole to express a theme of deep, constrained love.”

How classical theatre influenced Kubota’s work  – by Dr Jacqueline M. Atkins, Collection Curator