Japanese Prints of Actors – A Brief History Part 2: 1742-1769

From the Kanpō period 寛保 1741-1743, and more exactly from the year 1742, prints with two to three colours printed from blocks begin to appear, the so-called benizurie 紅摺絵, mostly in a colour scheme identical to benie and primarily in the hosoban format. However, it is only from 1744 that these would account for most of the print production, and it is only from about 1750 that they completely supersede urushie, although we can even find a few exceptions as late as 1760. Their designers are Ishikawa Toyonobu 石川豊信 act 1743-59, Torii Kiyomitsu 鳥居清満 act 1745-77, Torii Kiyohiro 鳥居清廣 act 1752-68, and Torii Kiyotsune 鳥居清経 act 1757-78, some of them even adopting the novel technique of full colour printing, nishikie 錦絵, from 1764.

Torii Kiyomitsu: The actor Ichikawa Raizō as Minamoto no Yoshitsune, XI/1761 Courtesy The Art Institute of Chicago

Looking then at prints issued in the period from 1742 to 1769, the heyday of benizurie prints, we notice quite a shift. This period comes to an end when the newly developed full colour prints, nishikie, become the overall standard. Although we can notice a few designers of the Torii-tradition who still as late as 1778 try to serve their traditional clientele with benizurie prints, in the end they too have to submit to innovation.

1697 1760tane urushie42% 9%   5%   29%99.5%
1742 1769benizurie27%9%9% 5% 6%   35%100%

What we see in the benizurie days is that most prints of actors in role are associated with performances in the eleventh month, 35%, those associated with the New Year’s performances being second with only 27%, indeed a total reversal from the preceding period, as if the notion of the ‘kabuki year’ is now being accepted much more widely. In the third place are prints associated with performances in the second and third months, both accounting for 9%. The fourth place is for prints after performances in the seventh month, 6%, followed by those in the fifth month, 5%.

Ishikawa Toyonobu: The actors Nakamura Kiyosaburō as Matsuyama and Ichimura Kamezō as Wanya Kyūbei, XI/1749 Courtesy The Art Institute of Chicago

Yet, even with only five remaining months, and not seven as before, accounting for one to three percent of the prints of actors only, we still must really wonder how designers of prints in much of the eighteenth century could possibly make a living. For most of the print buying audience, if we can even speak of that in this period, it seems to have sufficed to just buy something like one print every year, either after the kaomise performances of the eleventh month, or after the New Year’s performances. And in case they might have forgotten the name of the actor and the role he played, these are invariably printed alongside the figures. Only very few slightly more passionate kabuki lovers, less than 30% in the earlier period it seems, and still less than 40% in this second period, seem to have been buying one or two more prints of actors in role.

We should also take into consideration that it was, until the 1760s, almost impossible to gain some extra income from making book illustrations or even design picture books, ehon 絵本 (of course, Moronobu 菱川師宣 and Jihei 杉村治兵衛 are exceptions in Edo). Okumura Toshinobu is known for just one book, as are Torii Kiyonobu II and Torii Kiyohiro. Nishimura Shigenaga 西村重長 is known for three books, Torii Kiyomasu II for twelve (in a period of 48 years of activity), and Torii Kiyoshige 鳥居清重 for sixteen (in 35 years of activity). If we also include books of erotic content, which the Japanese literature tries to ignore altogether, Torii Kiyonobu I is known for 6 books, five of which are of erotic content, Okumura Masanobu for 36 books, 23 of which are of erotic content, and Ishikawa Toyonobu for 13 books, all of erotic content. However, it is only from the 1760s that Torii Kiyomitsu and Torii Kiyotsune can finally make a living by illustrating 71 and 200 popular novels respectively, in addition to the prints they designed, a totally new development of the time.

Torii Kiyomitsu: The actors Ichimura Uzaemon IX as Nagoya Sanza and Ichimura Kamezō II, XI/1766 Courtesy The Art Institute of Chicago

Indeed, it is only from the 1760s that we find ourselves in a society where what we generally believed to be the ‘Floating World’ can finally, and only then, begin to develop. Until then, popular novels don’t get “popular” thanks to their illustrations or illustrators. And it would seem that, until then, only very few designers of prints could have made a living, or survive by just designing prints. Of course, we have no idea of the survival rate of prints in the eighteenth century, but even when we consider a survival rate of one third or one fourth, how, for example, could Torii Kiyotsune possibly have made a living for 21 years on a total of 3 x 18 = 54, or maybe 4 x 18 = 72 print designs, if only thanks to his illustrations to 200 popular novels? Or if we just take the 149 prints of actors listed by Mutō as a base, should we consider him as someone trying to make a living on the basis of 3 x 149 = 447 or 4 x 149 = 596 – which still comes down to not more than an annual production of 21 or 28 designs, sort of one every other week? Should we consequently consider most of these designers as gifted amateurs with some other regular income to make a living and support their family and occasionally maybe even running a part-time atelier with pupils? Anyway, they are eshi 絵師 or maybe gakō 画工, draughtsmen, certainly belonging to the social class of craftsmen.

Naturally, the various heads of the Torii tradition enjoyed a regular income from painting the posters of the Edo kabuki theatres, which brought them from Osaka to Edo to begin with, and this would go for Torii Kiyonobu 1664-1729, Torii Kiyonobu II 1706-1763, for Torii Kiyomitsu 1735-1785, and maybe also for Torii Kiyonaga 鳥居清長 1752-1815. Moreover, as the heads of the Torii tradition, they must have been able to make a living and train the next generation of Torii designers. The one other exception would be Okumura Masanobu who, as the ’inventor of perspective prints, ukie’ 浮繪根元, and much more, also acted as a real innovative publisher.

Of course, as we know, certainly also from Higuchi’s work, these artists justly considered themselves as craftsmen and also designed prints of fashionable women, as well as other fashionable images. Foremost in this respect are Nishimura Shigenaga act 1719-54, with only 6 prints of actors in role out of a total of 52 prints listed in Higuchi, that is 11%, and the real versatile talent Okumura Masanobu, with only 32 prints of actors out of the 111 works listed with Higuchi, or 28%. In the case of both Ishikawa Toyonobu with 22 prints of actors out of 58 prints listed in Higuchi (Mutō lists 90 prints of actors), and Torii Kiyohiro with 16 prints of actors out of 37 (Mutō lists 145), we are still in the less than 50% range with 38 and 43% respectively. However, for most other artists, prints of actors in role seem to have been their primary production, and consequently we must indeed wonder how they possibly made a living. For Nishimura Shigenobu 西村重信 act 1722-47 with 16 prints of actors out of a total of 27 listed in Higuchi (Mutō lists 46), this makes up for 60% of his oeuvre. Both Torii Kiyomasu I, Okumura Toshinobu, and Torii Kiyomitsu make prints of actors to 65% of their output, Kiyomasu with 39 prints out of 60, Toshinobu with 34 out of 52, and Kiyomitsu with 47 out of the 72 designs listed in Higuchi. Torii Kiyotsune, gets to 77% with 14 prints of actors out of 18, and both Torii Kiyonobu I and Torii Kiyomasu II not really surprisingly reach 79%, Kiyonobu with 62 prints of actors out of 78 designs, and Kiyomasu with at least 60 of the 76 designs by him listed in Higuchi. With Torii Kiyoshige act 1721-63 and Torii Kiyonobu II we get to the 95% range, with Kiyoshige being listed in Higuchi with 19 designs of actors out of a total of 20 designs, and Kiyonobu with 54 out of 57.

Next time A Brief History of Prints of Actors, Part 3A: 1764-1796, or maybe just an Intermezzo: Don’t Look Back