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In woodblock prints, a striking view of kabuki

Lust, revenge, and heart-thumping romance fill a section of the Museum of Fine Arts' Japanese Galleries in ``On Stage in Osaka," a rollicking selection of 19th-century woodblock prints advertising kabuki theater productions. Formally lush and technically impressive, the posters delight with their over-the-top melodrama and energized action sequences.

The prints make up the first show of works from a treasure trove of thousands of Japanese prints given to the museum by William Sturgis Bigelow in 1911. It has taken nearly a century, but the MFA, which has one of the largest collections of Japanese prints in the world, is now in the process of recording, photographing, researching, and exhibiting all the Bigelow works.

The exhibit traces the development of new, more elaborate printing techniques over the course of the 19th century. Until recently, scholarship and market interest have been mostly in prints made in Edo (which became Tokyo in 1868) during that time, which were portraits, historic scenes, and landscapes. Osaka printmakers focused exclusively on actors, and to capture the color and high drama of kabuki, they utilized metallic pigments and burnished and embossed their work -- techniques seen more rarely in Edo prints.

Kabuki actors were like Hollywood stars in Osaka -- glamorized, beloved, and competitive. Printmakers such as Shunkosai Hokushu were like publicists. A Hokushu print from 1821 depicts the actor Arashi Kitsusaburo I , popularly known as Rikan, reflected in his dressing-room mirror. Wigs and masks hang nearby, conjuring the roles of pirate, nobleman, and warrior.

Hokushu's 1821 poster for the play ``Mirror Mountain" sets the scene against a pale gray ground, with cherry blossoms fluttering over the heads of two ladies-in-waiting (played by men) in the court of a princess. The floral patterns of the courtesans' robes are intricate and absorbing, but their facial expressions dominate the scene. Clearly, some intrigue is afoot.

Look at the boldly stylized patterning in Gosotei Hirosada's darkly magical 1852 poster for ``The Chigogafuchi Pool." The story, like many kabuki plays, takes Japanese history and legend -- the 16th-century tale of samurai Akechi Mitsuhide -- and throws in a few new plot twists. Here, the hero Sutewakamaru is confronted by his father's ghost rising from a swirling blue sea. The water, the giant tree that Sutewakamaru braces himself against, and the strong patterns of the costumes pump up the tension of the scene, as do the saturated colors.

Ichiyosai Yoshitaki's 1860 print advertising the production ``A Million Lands" shows a Buddhist pilgrim threatened by a sinister fellow brandishing a rifle. The action takes place against a background of bright diagonals, a graphic conceit that marked the trend of using dyed textile patterns rather than stage sets to set off characters.

Printmakers, eager to catch their audience's attention, capitalized on design trends and used what technical wizardry they could to make their posters pop. Almost two centuries later, the prints still have flash, and they embody the grace of fine craftsmanship that mass production has stamped out of today's movie posters.

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