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Saruwaka Street

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Night view of Saruwaka Street by Utagawa Hiroshige

‘Night view of Saruwaka Street’ by Utagawa Hiroshige


A fire in 1841 destroyed the district around Sakai Street (Sakai-cho) where the Nakamura and other theatres were situated. The government (bakufu) reformer Mizuno Tadakuni refused permission to rebuild as an attempt to abolish the theatres. Another bakufu official sympathetic to Kabuki persuaded Mizuno to agree to relocate all the theatres (together with the puppet theatres) to the area north-east of Asakusa Kannon temple and south of the Nihon Embankment. This new theatre district, which was already a centre of popular pleasure, consisted of a single main street, renamed Saruwaka Street (Saruwaka-cho or Saruwaka-machi) after Saruwaka Kanzaburo, who founded Edo kabuki in the Nakamura Theatre in 1624.

Saruwaka Street was entered through a gate at the south end (seen in the distance in Hiroshige’s view). The Morita, Ichimura and Nakamura theatres are seen on the right. The east side was filled with teahouses, which can be seen on the left of Hiroshige’s view, with waitresses talking to guests. The puppet theatres were also located on this side. On the opposite side were the three main Kabuki theatres licensed by the government. They can be identified in Hiroshige’s print by the boxed turret or yagura (‘drum tower’) above each of them serving as a symbol of government (bakufu) approval. They were arranged in order of seniority, with the Nakamura first (seen in the distance), then the Ichimura and finally the Morita (seen on the extreme right of the print). The Morita had only recently re-opened after a period of closure during which productions took place under the aegis of the Kawarazaki Theatre, which served the Morita as a substitute, or hikae yagura (‘alternate drum tower’).

The theatres appear closed. When a run of performances was in swing, the front of the theatres were covered with banners and signs, and the street was packed with people. The print presumably represents the street as it appeared at full moon in the 8th month of 1856, before the Autumn onagori performances that started on the 9th day of the 9th month.

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Organised for Japan 2001

The Fitzwilliam Museum is especially grateful to John Carpenter, Tim Clark, Paul M. Griffith, Hideyuki Iwata and Ellis Tinios for their generous help during the preparation of this exhibition.

Funded by Japan 2001