Comparative Guts

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Kinrai ryūkō kabuki uwasa kenbutsu no hara

(A Belly-Survey of the Kabuki Actors Most Talked About Today, late 19th c.)

It is hard, today, to appreciate the glamor of Kabuki actors in early modern Japan. The top stars were celebrated like the movie stars and sports heroes of our own age, their names more widely known than those of the political elite. Their aura was enhanced by their relative inaccessibility: going to see Kabuki plays in person was expensive. In an age before television and radio, these actors were thus known to the vast majority of the population only through word of mouth and a flood of prints and books, which reproduced their looks and reported how they posed and gestured as they recited their trademark lines. Chinese prints had often associated the viscera with Daoist divinities. In the culture of commercial fame in Japan’s economic society, Kabuki actors became like gods.