Japanese Prints of Actors – A Brief History Part 3B: still the years 1764-1796

With the exception of a small number of prints dating from around 1770, and then again from about 1790, most prints of both Bunchō and the Katsukawa do not feature any marks of publishers. Would this suggest that most of these prints were in fact somewhat like private publications, not available through commercial publishers, and rather directly distributed by the fan clubs of the kabuki actors? This might well have been a common practice in the early years of nishikie colour prints. As for Bunchō (see the previous issue, Part 3A for the reference), we can only identify some 52 designs out of a total of 395 being issued with some publisher’s mark, dating from 1769 (7 prints), 1770 (13), 1771 (6), 1772 (5), and 1773 (1). This is also what we see with Harunobu’s prints, where we can only find some 101 prints with a publisher’s mark out of a total of 843 known prints (mostly in his prints in the mizue 水絵 and benizuri printing technique, and only 11 among his 720 nishikie colour prints), whereas, by decree, publishers’ marks were obligatory from XI/1720 for both prints and books issued commercially. It is then tempting to conclude that most prints in the new technique, at least in the initial years, were not distributed commercially, but rather among members of private clubs, such as people around the hatamoto Ōkubo Tadanobu aka Kyosen 1722-1777, 旗本大久保忠舒巨川 in the case of Harunobu, and members of fan clubs of kabuki actors in the cases of Bunchō and Shunshō and his Katsukawa-workshop colleagues. It is probably also no coincidence that we begin to see the first colour printed books issued by commercial publishers around the same time, from 1770.

But maybe we should also have a look at the days of benizurie and see which role commercial publishers were playing then. It then appears that only 11.5% of benizurie, that is 103 out of a total of 1205 prints, was issued without any mark of a publisher. This might well confirm that the absence of publishers’ marks on most early nishikie indicates that we are, indeed, looking at some kind of private publication, at least some print that was being distributed privately. On the other hand, how exactly this worked is difficult to say. There must have been someone acting as a producer, who organized the cutting of the blocks, provided the paper needed, and eventually oversaw the printing, as we also see this with surimono prints, e.g. Kubo Shunman 窪俊満 in Edo and Tani Seikō 谷清好 in Osaka. Most likely these were established publishers who should well be able to handle all this, but couldn’t act as their publisher as it were the clubs who commissioned these and were paying the costs and were consequently in charge of the distribution as well. Thus, these prints were made by subscription, like, for example, upon an announcement that Katsukawa Shunkō would make a triptych composition after this and this play that was just staged yesterday at this and this theatre?

According to Arihara Kogan 1829-1922 在原古玩, Harunobu’s chūban prints cost 160 mon 文 at the time, whereas prints by other artists in the hosoban format cost 12 mon and ōban prints 24 mon (cited after Tanabe Masako 田辺昌子 in the Harunobu exhibition catalogue, Chiba City Museum of Art, 2002, 275 and 307). This may seem interesting, but on the other hand, it is also a little puzzling. How could one chūban print by Harunobu cost the equivalent of more than six and a half ōban prints by any other artist – and I always learned that format is a factor, and six and a half ōban prints equal thirteen chūban sheets, that is the printing blocks, the cutting of the line and colour blocks, and the printers working a number of days, and the paper also makes for a good part of the price, as do the pigments… It is also not very clear what exactly the source of Arihara’s statements is (though I must still try to locate a copy of his article). So I prefer to forget about this, it simply makes no sense (to me, at least).

Assuming that also the hosoban and ōban prints are full colour nishikie, we must realize that from 1772 a new set of standard formats of paper was introduced, as a necessary standardization that would enable the badly needed commercial production of colour prints, yes, indeed, commercial distribution, no longer just catering to only private subscribers. As a consequence, the traditional ōbirobōsho 大広奉書 sheet measuring 44 x 58 cms and yielding a chūban sheet of 290 x 220 mms, as we can find in the Art Institute of Chicago’s circa 1766 Zashiki hakkei 座敷八景 series of 289 x 218 mms, was replaced by ōbōsho 大奉書 sheets measuring 39 x 53 cms and yielding a chūban sheet of 265 x 195 mms that we find in Bunchō’s post 1772 chūban designs, and most other chūban designs, for that matter. And from then, a standard ōban print measures 390 x 265 mms. And the benizurie hosoban measuring 330 x 153, as one third of a Mino sheet of 330 x 460 would from then measure 330 x 156, exactly the third of a kobōsho sheet 小奉書, which, alas, hardly helps us date these hosoban prints on the basis of their measurements. Once this standardization is a fact, print production is gradually getting in the hands of commercial publishers, as we can see in the works of Isoda Koryūsai, Torii Kiyonaga, and Kitagawa Utamaro. And towards the late 1780s, when cultural life in Edo is more and more under close scrutiny of the government, leading to the Kansei Reforms concerning publishing of V/1790, even the Katsukawa artists have to give up their private business of exclusive catering to the kabuki fan clubs. From then, we only see privately distributed prints in the form of picture calenders, egoyomi 絵暦, mostly in the 1780s and 1790s, and kyōka surimono 狂歌摺物 from the 1790s on.

Katsukawa Shunei: The actor Bandō Hikosaburō III in the role of Sugawara no Michizane, probably V/1799, ōban format, publisher Uemura Yohei, KN 5:270 (Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, JP2824)

The Katsukawa artists, as well as Bunchō and Sharaku, also worked in other formats than just hosoban. Both Bunchō and Shunshō, Shunkō 春好 act 1772-99 (?) and Shunei 春英 act 1783-1808 (?) designed quite a few works in the chūban format, and as the aiban 330 x 235 mm format came into use, the Katsukawa artists also used this format quite regularly as an intermediate format in between the ōban and chūban sheets. Shunshō’s use of the ōban format probably only dates from the early 1780s, in a series of prints portraying actors back-stage and a number of prints of sumō wrestlers. Moreover, as is well-known, Sharaku made his first appearance in the world of prints with a group of no less than 28 ōban prints with a mica ground portraying actors after performances in the fifth month of 1794, a feat unmatched by anyone else either before or after him. These so-called ōkubie 大首絵 or ‘large head’ portraits were probably an innovation that must be attributed to Katsukawa Shunkō, as we can learn from the comments in Kabuki nenpyō in the first month of 1789, stating that ‘for the fame of Tamejūrō, the kyōka poetry clubs of Edo had Katsukawa Shunkō make portraits of Tosshi [Sawamura Sōjūrō III], Okuyama [Asao Tamejūrō], Rokō [Segawa Kikunojō III], Tojaku [Iwai Hanshirō IV], and Mimasu [Ichikawa Danjūrō V], and distributed 500 of these,’ privately that is 為十郎大評判にて江戸狂歌連中より訥子奥山路考杜若三升五人の似顔を勝川春好に描かせ摺物五百枚を贈る (KN 5:81). And may we then conclude that an edition of 500 was really exceptional and that maybe something like 300 or 350 was more like common practice? Or could it be, as my friend and loyal reader Paul Belien suggested, that each of the designs was printed in an edition of one hundred and we thus get to the figure of five hundred for the five prints. Indeed, raising the question again how costly these prints were. And, of course, these ōban prints cost much more than a standard hosoban sheet. Still, the designers, block-cutters and printers all had to be paid, plus the printing blocks, the paper and the pigments, so there must have been a break even point somewhere. Anyway, I have never believed that skipping one bowl of noodles would allow one to buy another woodblock print fairy-tale.

Katsukawa Shunshō: The actors Sawamura Sōjūrō to the right, and Nakayama Kojūrō VI, XI/1785 KN 5:10 (Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, JP171)

But let us now again have a look at the prints of actors in role designed by Buncho, the Katsukawa workshop, and Sharaku:

1697 1760tane urushie42% 9%   5%   29%563 99.5%
1742 1769benizurie27%9%9% 5% 6%   35%854 100%
1764 1796                         Katsukawa Bunchō Sharaku17%6%6% 7% 9%6%  40%794 99.5%
Katsukawa Shunei: The actor Ichikawa Monnosuke II in the role of Sukeroku, IV/1791, publisher Harimaya Shinshichi, KN 5:115 (Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, JP2707)

As we already saw in Part 3A, the print buying audience keeps losing interest in prints after the New Year performances. Could it be that New Year’s egoyomi and surimono and the new novels of various kinds released in the first month were attracting more attention and that this made that prints after the New Year performances now make up for only 17% of the annual production, versus 40% for prints after the kaomise 顔見 performances marking the opening of the kabuki season. The interest for prints after the second and third months drops, the fifth month is on the rise, and new is prints after performances in the eighth month. In summary, the buying public is still moving, or is it the commercial publishers who cause these shifts, trying to reach a wider audience than just members of the fan clubs of specific actors?

Otherwise, looking a bit around at other developments, it is quite remarkable that most Katsukawa artists hardly lent themselves to illustrations of popular novels, with the exception of Shunjō (春常 13 in the years 1778-92), Shunrō 春郎, the later Hokusai (34 novels in the years 1780-97), and Shunei (33 in the years 1782-94). Shunshō, the head of the atelier, made the illustrations to only six popular novels and designed 17 picture books and 19 albums of erotic content, indeed making him an artist of the ‘old’ tradition. Otherwise he seems to have been in very strict control, only Shunchō 勝川春潮, who almost did no prints of actors, was allowed to do the illustrations of seven popular novels, in addition to making three picture books and 14 erotic works in the years 1783-98.

The actor Ichikawa Danjūrō V in the role of Kudō Suketsune, c.1800, a role he played every first month in the years 1778-1781 (Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, JP3058)

The Katsukawa tradition, and certainly the branch devoted to the theatrical world, died out soon after the decease of Katsukawa Shunshō in Kansei 4, eighth day of the twelfth month 寛政四年十二月八日, that is 19/1/1793. His favourite pupil Shunkō suffered from a stroke that paralyzed his right arm in 1791 and stopped designing prints, after some training concentrating on painting instead. And his second choice, Shunei, also gave up soon as they lost their traditional audience to the upcoming Utagawa tradition of prints of actors, led by Utagawa Toyokuni 歌川豊國 act 1787-1825 and Utagawa Kunimasa 歌川國政 act 1795-1804, the subject of the next instalment. And, indeed, why not Shunrō, whom Shunshō always put in a far corner of his atelier, just allowing him to make the cheapest possible actor prints so that the Katsukawa atelier would also cater to a different audience and have some extra income – the later Hokusai I mean, who then left the Katsukawa workshop to establish a fully independent tradition by himself, but not in the world of actors.

Japanese Prints of Actors – A Brief History Part 3A: 1764-1796

In Part 2 of this Brief History, there was already mention of some major innovation, the development of full colour printing from 1764, giving rise to what we know as nishikie 錦絵, justly advertised as ‘Brocade Prints from the Eastern Capital,’ Edo that is, Azuma nishikie 東錦絵. These would gradually supersede the traditional benizurie 紅摺絵 that had been predominant in printmaking for the two preceding decades.

In the literature, the earliest nishikie are generally associated with Suzuki Harunobu 鈴木春信 act 1760-70. This is only based on the circumstance that, and don’t ask me why, Harunobu got involved in the sudden temporary craze of distributing picture calenders, egoyomi 絵暦, among one’s friends for the New Year, starting in Meiwa 2 明和二年, 1765, and already much less in Meiwa 3 明和三年, 1766. Indeed, why not Torii Kiyomitsu 鳥居清満 act 1745-77 or Torii Kiyotsune 鳥居清経 act 1757-78, both with a much more impressive record of production? Or even more to be expected, Ishikawa Toyonobu 石川豊信 act 1746-79. Anyway, we see the first use of the new printing technique with Katsukawa Shunshō 勝川春章 act 1764-93 as well as with some amateur designers of prints. And as for prints of actors, Harunobu wisely soon left the field to Shunshō.

The actor Ichikawa Yaozō II as Soga no Gorō in a performance at the Nakamura Theatre in II/1770 (Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)
The actor Ichikawa Monnosuke II as Soga no Jūrō in a performance at the Kiri Theatre in I/1785, KN 5:4 (Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

A major innovation of Shunshō and his Katsukawa workshop was that he established close connections with the various fan clubs of kabuki actors. So they soon started designing narrow upright hosoban prints in triptych or pentaptych compositions, catering to the various fan clubs. However, as most kabuki aficionados apparently only bought the sheets portraying their favourite actor, it is now almost impossible to find such complete triptych or pentaptych compositions in either private or public collections. Checking the ukiyo-e.org site, for example, I only found among a total of 3675 hosoban sheets one hexaptych composition, seven pentaptych compositions and eight tetraptych compositions, and 74 triptych compositions (6%) as well as 175 diptychs (9.5%) – where we may sometimes also ask ourselves if these were complete compositions or just parts of triptychs and pentaptychs. Anyway, this means that we are left with almost 85% of single prints that were mostly picked by the kabuki fans out of their original multi-sheet compositions.

We must also realize that another major innovation of the Katsukawa artists consisted in rendering a direct and vivid interaction between the actors in triptych and pentaptych compositions, an aspect that alas goes forlorn when these are reduced to incomplete single print images. Of course, there is also a number of prints that was conceived as single sheet compositions from the beginning, but they really seem to have been a minority. One easy way to identify prints from multi-sheet compositions is when there is a simple décor or stage setting running to both the right and left edges — as in all pics seen here, and all by Katsukawa Shunshō — that we can almost always see from about 1770, although its absence is still no guarantee that we are looking at a single print composition. Anyway, we can well conclude that the kabuki lovers in these days demanded much more than just one or two prints after performances in the first and the eleventh months, as had largely been the case in the preceding decades. Indeed, from the 1760s we are gradually getting closer to the Floating World 浮世 where kabuki 歌舞伎 thrives, as do guides to the Yoshiwara 新吉原 pleasure quarter, illustrated popular novels 草双紙, collections of kyōka 狂歌集 poems, and the print culture.

Kabuki Actor Ichikawa Danjūrō V as Sakata Kintoki in the Play Raikō’s Four Intrepid Retainers in the Costume of the Night Watch (Shitennō tonoi no kisewata), Katsukawa Shunshō 勝川春章 (Japanese, 1726–1792), Woodblock print (nishiki-e); ink and color on paper, Japan
The actor Ichikawa Danjūrō V as Sakata Kintoki in a performance at the Nakamura Theatre in XI/1781, KN 4: 455 (Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

My original count was based on The actor’s image. Print makers of the Katsukawa school. The Art Institute of Chicago, 1994. But then I realized that it would be good to also include both Ippitsusai Bunchō 一筆斎文調 act 1764-79 and Tōshūsai Sharaku 東洲斎写楽 act 1794-95 in the count. Bunchō is a direct contemporary of Shunshō and worked for a quite similar audience, and both collaborated on the Picture Book of Fans on the Stage, Ehon butai ōgi 『繪本舞台扇』of I/1770, probably the first colour-printed book, published by Kariganeya Ihei 雁金屋伊兵衛. As for Sharaku, his production of prints, certainly his compositions in the hosoban format, is much more similar to the Katsukawa tradition than to the Utagawa tradition, the focus of Part 4. That this was quite correct can be inferred from the fact that percentagewise, this hardly affected the outcome based on my earlier count of the Katsukawa artists alone, just a difference of one or two percents in only a few cases. For Bunchō, I used ‘Ippitsusai Bunchō hanga sakuhin mokuroku’ by Hayashi Kyōhei 林京平、一筆斎文調版画作品目録 in the Ukiyoe shūka volumes 浮世絵衆花, and for Sharaku the 2011 Tokyo National Museum exhibition catalogue 東博展.

1697 1760tane urushie42% 9%   5%   29%563 99.5%
1742 1769benizurie27%9%9% 5% 6%   35%854 100%
1764 1796                         Katsukawa Bunchō & Sharaku17%6%6% 7% 9%6%  40%794 99.5%
The actor Ichikawa Yaozō II as Akeba no Chōkichi, in reality Soga no Gorō in a performance at the Nakamura Theatre in I/1770, KN 4:126. The writing top left is MS by a contemporary collector (Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

A real problem with most prints by Katsukawa artists, and also those by Bunchō and certainly the hosoban format compositions by Sharaku, is that these were destined at an audience of connoisseurs, who knew the plays, who knew the actors, who were mostly associated with an actor’s fanclub, so it was absolutely superfluous to print the names of the actors and their roles, as had been the custom until then. Consequently, it can be quite a problem for us nowadays to associate these prints with specific performances and date them accordingly. We are then lucky to have at least quite a few programmes illustrating the highlights of the plays and details of the performances to be found in the Annual Records of the Kabuki Theatres, Kabuki nenpyō 『歌舞伎年表』. And then there is a small number of prints that were inscribed by a contemporary collector, giving the names of the actor, the role, the theatre, and the date of the performance – as we can see in the figure to the right.

As in the preceding years, when benizuri prints were predominant, prints after performances in the eleventh and first months still take first and second positions, though the difference, percentagewise, is much larger: initially they were 42 and 29%, then 27 and 35%, now they are 17 and 40%, so the first month performances are quite dramatically decreasing. And there are third, fourth, and fifth positions for the seventh month (9%), the fifth month (7%), the second, third and eighth months (each 6%), leaving only the fourth, sixth, ninth, and tenth months out. In summary, we see in the period from 1697 to 1760 that 71% of the prints are after performances in the first and eleventh months, and only 29% such prints are bought by those wanting more than just one or two prints. And in the years when benizurie 紅摺絵 were predominant, 62% were prints after performances in the first and eleventh months, and some 38% were prints after performances in other months, already quite an increase. And in the years of the Katsukawa domination until the end of the eighteenth century, 57% were prints after performances in the eleventh and first months, leaving 43% for prints after performances in the other nine months. This makes it all the more interesting to find out whether something like a stable situation had now been reached, so that designing prints of actors would no longer be a strictly seasonal job for most – we’ll see it soon.