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Enter the World of Kabuki Art Via the Asia Society's Tsuruya Kōkei Exhibit

Explore the Kabuki woodblock roots of Japanese pop art.

By Holly Beretto December 30, 2019

Featuring nearly 100 Kabuki actor woodblock prints as well as pop art inspired by the famed Japanese artist with images from Pokemon, Japanese anime, and fan magazines, the Asia Society's exhibit, Tsuruya Kōkei: Modern Kabuki Prints Revised & Revisited, is something pretty special. 

“Asia Society Texas works to bring the best visual arts from, and about, Asia to Houston,” says Bridget Bray, the Nancy C. Allen Curator and director of exhibitions at Asia Society Texas. “Many Houstonians might never travel to Japan, but by seeing this exhibition, they can engage with artists working there as well as those working in the United States who have been inspired by them. By visiting us, they can join in this conversation, and be inspired by new ideas and viewpoints they otherwise might miss out on.”

The exhibit, which is only being shown here and in California, offers guests a great deal to not only build on a conversation about these works, but also to try their hand at creating similar pieces. Exhibit-goers can color their own Kabuki-inspired makeup designs and make block prints inspired by Kōkei’s woodblocks, creating a unique souvenir to take home.

The Asia Society believes it’s offering a glimpse into one of Asia’s most fascinating artists and art forms. Kōkei was an artist-in-residence at a Tokyo kabuki theater. For every actor in every production, he carved a different woodblock print. This exhibit, held in celebration of the 30th anniversary of the artist's first solo U.S. show, features actor prints from 1984 to 1993.

“Kabuki is a form of dance-drama that has a long history in Japan,” explains Bray. “It has had a significant role in shaping Japanese theater traditions, but its impact can also be seen in other art forms, like woodblock printing, and as we show in this exhibition, on artists working outside of Japan in the contemporary era.”

Kōkei is one of the most popular artists in the country, and fans collected his prints like Broadway playbills or baseball cards. Every time a production closed, he destroyed his woodblocks, so each print is pretty rare; they’re coveted like autographed Hollywood photos. And lovers of anime might well see the roots of their beloved art form in Kōkei’s prints.

“Anime and manga, printed forms such as comics and graphic novels, are extremely popular both in and outside of Japan,” says Bray. “Tsuruya Kōkei’s woodblock prints feature dramatic characterizations, graphic qualities with strong lines, and rich colors that grab the eye. For manga and anime fans, these prints will offer something new, combining story and technique in unique ways.”

Free to the public through Dec. 31 at Asia Society Texas, 1370 Southmore in the Museum District. The show runs through Jan. 19. Tickets are $8 for non-members. Go to for more information. 

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