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This 13-metre-long handscroll shows the bustling life of the theatre district of Edo (today's Tokyo) around 1700.

Entitled Theatres of the East, the handscroll shows people enjoying a range of entertainment from puppet shows and Kabuki theatre to comic skits and private parties. 

A clown-like figure and an actor on horseback act out a comic scene. You can see that the 'horse' - wearing socks - is played by two actors inside a costume.

Handscroll fact file

Date

1710–30

Made by

Furuyama Moromasa

Made from

Ink, colours, gold and silver on paper

Made in

Japan

Museum reference

IL.2015.59.1

On loan from The City of Edinburgh Council

On display

Exploring East Asia, Level 5, National Museum of Scotland

Did you know?

As this handscroll is 13 metres long, it would have been unrolled one section at a time for close-up viewing. The handscroll will be displayed one section at a time in our gallery, and this will change over time.

What is a handscroll?

The handscroll format is compact and portable, and its continuous surface allows for effective storytelling. Watch this short video to find out more about how this style of painting was appreciated in Japan. 

Who painted the handscroll?

The artist's signature - 'Picture by the Japanese artist Furuyama Moromasa' - and his red seal appear at the end of the handscroll. Furuyama Moromasa (active 1700–1748) was a painter and print designer of imagery depicting the popular entertainments in the city of Edo. He was grandson of the renowned artist Hishikawa Moronobu (1618–94), who had founded this genre.

The handscroll is brought to a close by a powerful, twisting pine tree with vivid green needles, followed by the signature and seal of the artist Furuyama Moromasa.

How did it arrive in Scotland?

This handscroll was brought to Scotland by Glaswegian engineer Henry Dyer (23 August 1848 – 25 September 1918). Dyer spent many years working within the education system in Japan and during this time acquired a collection of Japanese artworksThe handscroll was gifted to Edinburgh City Libraries in the 1940s by Henry Dyer's daughter. 

Examining a handscroll in the Exploring East Asia gallery.

This handscroll on display in our Exploring East Asia gallery. Photo © Andy Catlin.

What can you see?

The handscroll is viewed from right to left, each section provides a fascinating glimpse into shops, theatres, and even a bath-house! Delve into a few of the details below, or visit our Exploring East Asia gallery to explore further. 

 Greeting a patron

At the entrance to the theatre district employees greet a mature samurai leaning on a stick, possibly the patron who commissioned this painting.

The presence of servants indicate his importance, as does his formal clothing, which includes hakama, a divided skirt rather like trousers.

 Puppet theatre

Puppet theatre, or jōruri, was enjoyed by all ages. The puppets in the scroll are performing a famous hair-shaving scene from a popular drama about the Soga brothers' revenge of their father's murder.

 Barkers outside a theatre

Even 300 years ago people were bombarded with advertising: outside the theatres, barkers called to passers-by to entice them in, posters listed acts and displayed key scenes from plays, and billboards listed high-profile actors' names.

 Private party

The shamisen is a three-stringed instrument plucked with a plectrum and is a key element in the music of Kabuki. The figure playing the shamisen is an onnagata, a male actor who specialises in playing women's roles. In the shop below, a shamisen is being assembled by a craftsman.

 Nakamura Theatre

The Nakamura-za was one of four official Kabuki theatres in Edo. Music is a significant part of Kabuki - here, chanters and shamisen players are seated at the back of the stage. The atmosphere is relaxed, with food and drinks being served to the audience, and a mother breast-feeding her child.

 Samurai procession

Here we can see people turning to watch the procession of a samurai lord. The lord is carried in a palanquin (a covered litter, usually for one passenger) by his retainers. Samurai are recognisable as only they were allowed to wear two swords, a sign of their status at the top of the social hierarchy.

 Painting stage props

Stage props and scenery are being painted next to the Ichimura theatre, one of four official Kabuki theatres in Edo. These atmospheric backdrops were used to help bring the popular Kabuki dramas and romances to life.

 Travelling salesman

Travelling salesmen carried their goods on their back or across their shoulders in large boxes. This vendor is selling bowls of hair oil.

Hair oil was particularly important in the theatre district as it was used on actors' wigs. There are seven shops selling hair oil depicted in this handscroll.

 Lady leaving palanquin

A high-ranking lady, wearing an expensive robe embroidered with gold, has just stepped out of her palanquin.

She is about to ascend the stairs to sit in one of the private boxes running around the sides of the theatre, rather than in the cheap seats in front of the stage.

 Child acrobats

Two children leap and swing from a high wire above the heads of the audience as part of a display of karuwaza, or acrobatics.

Although passers by cannot see in, posters at the entrance show scenes of acrobats very similar to the action on stage.

 End of the street

Through the neighbourhood gate, on a small side street, a customer sits at a stall selling kushiyaki, a popular type of fast food grilled on bamboo skewers.

The shop worker fans the flames to cook the food evenly. Kushiyaki is typically meat but can also be seafood or vegetables.

 Fire watchtower

Above a shop stocked with rolls of textiles is a fire watchtower. Inside, a man waits vigilantly, ready to strike the drum at the first sign of fire.

Until the late 19th century most buildings in Japan were constructed from wood, and so fires were a frequent occurrence in any city and a real cause for concern.

How was it conserved?

In Japan, scroll paintings are done on thin silk or paper, backed with layers of paper to give flexibility and strength as the work is repeatedly opened out and rolled up. These layers eventually wear out and need replacing. Watch this short video to find out more about the conservation.

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