Single prints in the early 18th century Moving on now to the young and upcoming tradition of single prints, it is somewhat of a problem to exactly find their beginning. Some would want to already consider some of the handscroll-like works that Moronobu designed from the mid-1670s as the beginning of single prints, ichimaie, his Appearance of the Yoshiwara (Yoshiwara no tei よしわらの躰) of circa 1677 probably being the best known example. Yet, I would say that these were originally conceived and issued in some very different format, bound up as a scroll or some kind of album. And this means that one could probably just buy the set of twelve scenes, not picking one or two of the designs only. However, there may well have been some later issue with the various plates available individually. But that doesn’t mean that we can accept the twelve designs as a series of single prints as we have come to know that concept from the second half of the eighteenth century. It is also hard to say whether all 28 ‘prints’ that Higuchi attributes to Moronobu are indeed single prints to begin with, yes, we must probably add that only one among them bears a signature. In the case of Sugimura Jihei, we can at least find four examples where his name is somehow worked into the design, which is the traditionally accepted way to identify his works. But is this sufficient when there is still no mark of a publisher?

It is probably only with Torii Kiyonobu (1664-1729, act. 1687-1728), that we are beyond doubt dealing with a considerable number of true single prints, mostly of actors of the kabuki theatre in role. The earliest of these can be dated to 1696, the last one to 1724.[1] As for the prints of actors, these are mostly narrow upright hosoban (細判) prints, measuring 265-350 x 140-170 mm (thirty-nine in all), printed in black and white and hand-coloured with tan, a vermillion red pigment from cinnaber, and then finished with some areas in shiny black lacquer, hence known as ‘lacquer prints, urushie (漆繪), as well as nineteen in the various then current large formats measuring 472-580 x 203-332 mm and mostly in the somewhat simpler technique of ‘vermillion prints,’ tane (丹繪), with another seven designs in a medium format. Those that are not related to the kabuki repertoire are, among others, prints of Matsukaze, of Masatsune, dancers with flower-hats, an oiran and her trainee, a woman holding a comb, a woman playing with her cat, and one of the Korean envoys. More specifically, we know of three Kiyonobu datable prints of the 1690s, thirty-three datable to the 1700s, and ten datable to the 1710s. Or, if we follow Mutō Junko and focus just on his prints of actors, three prints are datable to the 1690s, five datable to the 1700s, thirty-seven for the 1710s, and twenty for the 1720s.[2]

Torii Kiyonobu: The actor Ikushima Daikichi as a parading courtesan, early 18th century. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (JP648)

Higuchi then distinguishes some other print designer working in the 1720s, who also used the signature of Torii Kiyonobu, whom he associates with seven prints of actors in role, datable to the years 1720-25, and three non-theatrical prints. Interestingly, two of these, both lacquer prints in the narrow upright format, hosoban urushie (細判漆繪), are part of what appears to be two different series of Eight Views of Edo (Edo hakkei, 江戸八景), one published by Urokogataya, the other published by Iseya. As far as we know, these would represent the earliest examples of titled series of prints, indeed, as early as the 1720s, a sure sign that the concept of single prints was by then sufficiently accepted as marketable. Moreover, also the fact that they are lacquer prints, urushie, that is featuring some colours applied by hand, and touches of shiny black lacquer to enhance certain parts, means that there was a market and that it was considered worthwhile to further invest in new kinds of single prints. Moreover, as we will see later, the publication of titled series of prints, is a very important tool in assessing the total of print production.

Within a year after Kiyonobu makes his debut in single prints of actors, in 1696, he is joined by his eldest son Torii Kiyomasu (act. 1697-1720) [? – this seems to be the current Japanese consensus, meaning that Kiyonobu was probably a father at around age 17, so wouldn’t the alternative, Kiyomasu being his younger brother, be more plausible?] who makes his debut in this field in 1697, being responsible for another five prints of actors in the 1700s, and thirty-one in the 1710s, and one dating to 1720, or, if we follow Mutō Junko, his earliest prints of actors date from 1704 only (which makes it not impossible that he was Kiyonobu’s eldest son, born shortly after he arrived at Edo), and she lists eleven designs in the 1700s and 66 in the 1710s, the last one dated to 1718. So, while Kiyonobu would be the number one designer of single prints in the 1700s (with 27 prints of actors and 6 non-theatrical designs following Higuchi), Kiyomasu takes this position in the 1710s (with 31 prints of actors and 20 of non-theatrical designs, again following Higuchi), while Mutō lists fourteen Kiyomasu prints of actors in the 1700s and another sixty-six for the 1710s, so maybe we should better consider prints of actors separately, and avoid a confrontation between Higuchi and Mutō. The second and third positions are then respectively held by newcomers Okumura Masanobu with 15 designs, and his pupil – and possibly, adopted son – Okumura Toshinobu (act. 1717-37) with 11 designs – with Kiyonobu only taking the fourth position. Anyway, these developments confirm both that there is a market for the newly developed concept of single prints, and that publishers are willing to invest in this.

Anonymous: The actor Sakata Hangorō as Asahina Saburō in the play Kaibyaku sakayaki Soga, performed Spring/1719 at the Nakamura Theatre — an example of a real crude production for buyers with a smaller budget

For sheer numbers, we would probably have to refrain from mentioning the Kaigetsudō masters. That would, however, be a serious neglect, as Kaigetsudō Ando, Kaigetsudō Anchi (seven prints known, 1700-16), Kaigetsudō Doshin (three prints known, 1700-16), and Kaigetsudō Dohan (twelve prints known, 1710-16), are actually a very important group of painters, indeed, probably known better at the time for their paintings, but also designing prints that would reach a much larger audience, primarily of the most ravishing and almost unattainable beauties in the most fashionable attire one can imagine. Their prints are, understandably, mostly in the large upright format and can probably best be appreciated printed in black and white, sumizurie (墨摺繪), with no colours added by hand, that would only distract from their strong woodblock-printed lines. At least, that is how I like to see them, admittedly a very personal viewpoint.

In the 1720s, Okumura Masanobu is undoubtedly the most prolific designer of single prints, taking the first position with twenty-nine known designs, thirteen of actors in role (but, again, Mutō lists 49 prints of actors in the 1720s). By then, from 1720 that is, he is also active as a publisher of prints (and also books?) from his shop at the Tōri Shiochō. Okumura Toshinobu moves from his third position in the 1710s to the second position in the 1720s, with a total of twenty-seven known designs, twenty of which of actors in role. The third position is again for yet another newcomer, Nishimura Shigenaga (1697?-1756, act. 1719-54), who is responsible for twenty-two single prints.

Or, if we just focus on prints of actors with Mutō as our guide, we must conclude that the first position in the 1700s is taken by Okumura Masanobu, with twenty-seven designs, No. 2: Torii Kiyomasu with 14 designs. In the 1710s, Torii Kiyomasu takes the lead with sixty-six designs, No. 2: Torii Kiyonobu with 37 designs, No. 3: Torii Kiyomasu II with 20 designs. And in the 1720s, Okumura Toshinobu ranks first with ninety-nine designs, No. 2: Torii Kiyomasu II with 88 designs, No. 3: Okumura Masanobu with 49 designs, No. 4: Torii Kiyonobu II with 29 designs, No. 5: Torii Kiyonobu with 20 designs, the last ones dating to 1724.

[1] For details, see Japanese Popular Print Culture, 1670s-1700.

[2] Mutō Junko, Shoki ukiyoe to kabuki. Tokyo: Kasama Shoin, 2005.