Japanese Prints of Actors – A Brief History Part 1: 1697-1760

It is really fascinating to have a closer look at what came to be called ‘actor prints’ from late Meiji, when the Japanese also started to demonstrate some real interest in Japanese woodblock prints and then coined the term yakushae (役者絵). At the time when these were made, they were simply called ‘pictures of figures,’ sugatae (姿繪), or also ‘pictures of the appearances of actors,’ yakusha no sugatae (役者の姿繪) in order to distinguish them from what we now know as ‘prints of beauties,’ bijinga (美人画), again a term only coined in the Meiji period for prints that had simply been known as ‘pictures of figures,’ sugatae, at the time, as in Seirō bijin awase sugata kagami, Mirror of Pictures of the Fair Ladies of the Green Houses (青楼美人合姿鑑), the 1776 book by Shunshō and Shigemasa.

Indeed, thanks to some quite comprehensive and reliable overviews of prints of actors, we can now discern some interesting shifts of interest that especially give us a better insight in the practices of print production. Until recently, we could probably just avail ourselves of Higuchi Hiroshi’s Shoki ukiyoe kaisetsu (樋口弘『初期浮世絵解説』) of 1977, or even, earlier still, of Helen Gunsaulus’ The Clarence Buckingham collection of Japanese prints: The Primitives, Chicago 1955. But now there is also Mutō Junko’s Shoki ukiyoe to kabuki (武藤純子『初期浮世絵と歌舞伎』) of 2005 as probably the best source available at the moment.

Torii Kiyonobu II, The actor Ichikawa Danjūrō II in the role of Soga no Jūrō in a performance in I/1733 Courtesy The Art Institute of Chicago 1939.2148

Making a chronological inventory of all prints that Mutō lists, and then even splitting them up according to the months when they were issued, we find that most such prints portraying actors in role in the period from 1697 to the mid 1740s can be assigned to the New Year’s performances in the first month. They make up for 42% of the total production, suggesting that it was then some kind of general practice to start the new year buying one’s first (and only?) actor print. Next come those that can be identified with the kaomise (顔見) performances of the eleventh month, the opening of the new kabuki season, 29%, a similar sort of moment for those rather adhering to the official beginning of the kabuki-year. Then follow prints that are associated with performances in the third month, 9%, and with those of the seventh month, 5%. The remaining seven months – there are no performances in the twelfth month – all account for less than 5%, and for the sake of clarity, I ignore them here.

1697 1760tane urushie42%  9%       5%     29%99.5%
Torii Kiyomasu, The actor Fujimura Handayū in the role of Ōiso no Tora, I/1715 Courtesy The Art Institute of Chicago 1925.1732

The period that I selected here is not a haphazard one, it covers the early period of prints in line only, sumizurie (墨摺絵), mostly until 1715 (?), and, from 1698-1725, the so-called tane (丹絵) with their characteristic hand colouring in a brilliant cinnabar orange-vermillion with green and yellow, as well as, from 1714-49, the rather predominant urushie (漆絵), prints with a hand-applied black mixed with glue to resemble lacquer, urushi (漆), sometimes even finished with powdered brass in some areas, and, from 1716-49 the less common benie (紅絵), prints hand-coloured with a strong pinkish red pigment and green or yellow. This is also the period of prints in various different formats – a real standardization only dates from 1772 – ranging from very large sheets (ōōban 大大判, falling in the range from 594 to 543 x 332 to 312), or large sheets (ōban 大判, of 453-380 x 300-270), or medium sheets (chūban 中判, of 300 x 215), and, from 1717, the smaller hosoban 細判 of 350-285 x 216-158 that will then soon really become predominant.

These prints were designed by artists such as Torii Kiyonobu (鳥居清信 act 1696-1724), Torii Kiyomasu (鳥居清倍 act 1697-1720), as well as, during part of their careers, by Okumura Masanobu (奥村正信 act 1705-56), Okumura Toshinobu (奥村俊信 act 1717-49), Okumura Toshinobu (奥村利信 act 1717-49), Torii Kiyomasu II (二代鳥居清倍 act 1718-66), and Torii Kiyonobu II (二代鳥居清信 act 1725-61).

Next: Part 2: 1742-1769