Manzai Performers

Painting by Tomioka Tessai 富岡鉄斎 Japanese
Inscription by Ōtagaki Rengetsu 太田垣蓮月 Japanese

Not on view

A pair of ebullient Manzai performers in courtier robes and caps help ring in the New Year. The lead figure carries an offering tray while the second performer accompanies their dance with a hand drum. This type of performance can be traced back to ancient times in Japan when the two Manzai (literally “ten thousand years!”) performers pretend to serve as oracles from the Shinto gods. But their ostensibly divine message is communicated through a kind of humorous standup comedy routine, with one performer offering some sort of argument or challenge to whatever the other says. The performance of these joyful dances, especially at the New Year, continued into Meiji times.

Tessai’s spontaneous rendering in ink and washes, with a touch of light color, captures the vitality of the performance. The famous poet-calligrapher Nun Rengetsu, who early on supported Tessai’s career as an artist, has added one of her poems, transcribed in her distinctive delicate kana script, with an admixture of kanji rendered so cursively that they blend in harmoniously.

Her poem uses two ancient poetic terms: Yamatobito (people of the Yamato, an ancient name for Japan) and Shikishima, literally the string of islands, an old name for Japan. It can be deciphered and translated as follows:


Bansei no
haru no hajime to
utau nari
kowa Shikishima no
Yamatobito kamo

From time immemorial
they have heralded
the beginning of spring —
these true Japanese souls
of the islands of Shikishima.

Trans. by John T. Carpenter

Manzai Performers, Painting by Tomioka Tessai 富岡鉄斎 (Japanese, 1836–1924), Hanging scroll; ink and light color on paper, Japan

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