From 1689 – as the earliest confirmed date – Moronobu also started designing single prints. Even though we  are now used to take for granted that there is something like Japanese prints, either single printed images, or diptychs and triptychs, or so, or prints belonging to a titled series of prints, this must have been some risky enterprise to begin with. We should not forget that this was very different in the late 17th century when there was no ‘print-buying’ audience at all. For sure, there are many many images of a religious nature, mostly sold at temples, and maybe popular images of Shōki, the demon queller, that one would paste at the entrance of one’s house to keep the demons out, or images of the Treasure Ship, Takarabune, that one would put under one’s pillow on New Year’s eve, so you might have an auspicious dream of Mount Fuji, a falcon, and eggplants. Also, there were many broadsheets, kawaraban, reporting anything mezurashii, unusual, news, in short, of scandals, killings, earthquakes even, anyway news that the bakufu wanted to keep out of the ‘press,’ explicitly forbidden in the city of Edo as early as 1673, so we may conclude that they did exist. But making a print of a group of dancing actors in 1689 and trying to sell it, with no clearly defined market that would be willing to buy such an image, was no doubt quite some risky investment. Alas, we don’t know who this daring publisher was. But maybe, he was inspired by the success of the sale of the individual plates of the Appearance of the Yoshiwara (Yoshiwara no tei よしわらの躰), that was probably published originally in the format of a set of plates in a wrapper, or maybe as a scroll, or bound up in some way, that were offered for sale as twelve single plates in the late 1680s by the publishing firm of Yamagataya Ichirōemon of Tōri Aburachō, Edo.

An additional problem with many so-called ‘prints’ by Moronobu, is that it is often difficult to tell whether these were, indeed, issued in the format of single prints to begin with, or whether we are actually looking at a plate that was detached from some album. In later times, we would be assisted by a signature and the mark of some publisher – that would normally be absent in the case of bookplates. But in the early days, the absence of some signature doesn’t really mean anything. It was simply quite exceptional to add a signature, be it on lacquer works of all kinds, on pottery, or even on paintings, both those sold by the local painters, eshi, and the ones made by established painters receiving commissions to make works that would be mounted as folding screens. Essentially, all of these ‘works of art’ – as we now see them – were made by craftsmen, the notion of works of art being something to start dreaming of more than two centuries later. Apart from the presence of a signature and a publisher’s mark, it would be best to look for vertical formats that would not be plates detached from some album – and there go all 28 ‘prints’ listed in Higuchi, all being horizontal sheets.

Hishikawa Moronobu: A woman reading to a man, late 1680s. Possibly a single print, maybe an album plate. Anyway, typical of Moronobu’s style. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

As for Moronobu designing single prints, there might be two in the 1670s, twenty-three in the 1780s, and three in the 1790s, indeed, provided they were actually designed and issued as single prints. As for his contemporary Sugimura Jihei, we know of one actor print datable to 1678, four single prints for the 1680s, and three prints that we cannot date.[1] Then, there are ten more designs datable to the 1680 that might also be attributed to Jihei, and six more that are more difficult to date. Although Torii Kiyonobu started illustrating books as early as 1687, his earliest single prints seem to date from 1696. This at least is a vertical composition with a publisher’s mark, making him possibly the first to design single prints if we want to be on the safe side.[2] He would continue to design such single prints of actors of the popular kabuki theatre in role, dating from the 1700s and 1710s, to be discussed into more detail in the next section.

There remain still many questions to be answered related to the first couple of decades of popular printing. For example, are the publishers of single prints the same as the publishers of picture books (I hope to come back to that later)? And what is there really beyond the picture books with plates by Moronobu, Sugimura Jihei, Moroshige, Kiyonobu, and Tomonobu? And also, we shouldn’t forget that paintings may have been much more important than these picture books, at least we know quite some names rather from paintings than from picture books or single prints. And don’t forget, if you don’t work/produce, you have nothing to eat, this is not a vocation, it is work so you can live. Also, we must realize that these picture books were probably aimed at a real well-to-do part of the Edo population – and this was probably not very different in Kyoto with the books illustrated by Yoshida Hanbei.

What is really interesting – and I’ll come back to this again later on – Moronobu signed quite a number of his books Yamato eshi, that is Japanese painter (1680s) and also Nihon eshi, also Japanese painter (1690s), probably so as to make it clear that he considered himself working in a Japanese style of painting, not the Chinese-influenced Kanō manner of painting. Also Sugimura Jihei uses the Yamato eshi as a prefix to his signature (1680s). Interestingly, Yoshida Hanbei uses Rakuyō eshi, Kyoto painter (1686).

Just looking back at the Genroku period, it must be said that the Chronology of Edo in Musashi Province (Bukō nenpyō [武江年表], I-105), mentions Hishikawa Kichibei (橘町菱川吉兵衛) [i.e. Hishikawa Moronobu (菱川師宣)] of Tachibanachō, the same (i.e. Hishikawa 菱川) Kichiemon (同吉左衛門) [died 15/II/1662], Furuyama Tarōbei (古山太郎兵衛) [i.e. Hishikawa Moroshige 菱川師重], Ishikawa Izaemon (石川伊左衛門) [aka Ishikawa Tomonobu?), Sugimura Jihei (杉村治兵衛), Ishikawa Tomonobu (石川流宣), Torii Kiyonobu (鳥居清信, lived 1664-1729), and Hishikawa Sakunojō (菱川作之丞) [i.e. Moronaga 師長]. Moreover, it also makes mention of Miyagawa Chōshun (宮川長春) coming up around the Genroku-Hōei periods (1688-1710; lived 1683-1753).

[1] This is a print of Tamagawa Sennojō as Izutsu and Suzuki Sanshirō as Narihira, after a performance in the Ichimura Theatre (KN 1:132). See Higuchi 1.

[2] The print portrays the actor Sodezaki Karyū as Tokoyo no mae, in the play Shitennō yome kagami, performed at the Morita Theatre in XI/1696 (KN 1:203), published by Shichirobei.