People Dancing


Not on view

Men in boldly patterned kimono, many holding golden fans with a rising sun motif, dance in time to the music, performing furyū-odori, fashionable, modern dances popular at festivals in the early to mid-seventeenth century, and also enjoyed at private gatherings, as depicted here. In the garden of a grand samurai residence, male guests dance to the music of small hand drums (tsutsumi), a larger shime-daiko drum held by a boy and played by an older samurai, a bamboo transverse flute (shinobue), and three-stringed shamisen played by two minstrels in the center. A blind shamisen minstrel is arriving to accompany them.

Many of the established forms of entertainment of the Edo period had their roots in ancient forms of court and agricultural rituals in which performers donned colorful kimono or elaborate costumes, fancifully decorated hats, and sometimes even masks representing sacred animals or supernatural beings. Such performances had both a religious and practical function: they helped exorcise evil spirits while inviting benevolent deities to bestow good fortune on a household or community. The social interaction of the rituals helped forge closer community ties, yet they also fulfilled for those who performed, joined in, or simply watched, an individual’s basic human need for emotional catharsis and temporary escape from daily cares, especially during times of famine or pandemic—which were all too common during the Edo period.

The masks and costumes used in folk dances permit individuals to transform their everyday appearances and personalities, allowing traditional reserve to break down and emotions to be freely expressed. Part of the classic definition of play, as proposed by the sociologist Johan Huizinga, is the opportunity it offers for “stepping out of real life into a temporary sphere of activity with a disposition all its own” (Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture, Boston, 1955, p. 9). Even if there is no pretense of a profound religious motive, the use of mask and costume reflects a basic human instinct to transcend the mundane world through simulation of the divine or otherworldly.

The unknown artist was very likely a machi-eshi, or town-based painter with no close affiliation to any particular school of painting. Bright colors and detailed textile patterns such as those seen here were frequently used in genre paintings depicting the various classes of Edo-period society and the celebration of various festivals. Such images are precursors of ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating world”) scenes of the pleasures of urban life that began to flourish in the later years of the seventeenth century and grew in popularity and sophistication over the next two hundred years.

People Dancing, Unidentified Artist, Hanging scroll; ink and color on paper, Japan

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