Japanese Kabuki Actors Captured in 18th-Century Woodblock Prints by the Mysterious & Masterful Artist Sharaku

“Kabu­ki,” as a cul­tur­al ref­er­ence, has trav­eled aston­ish­ing­ly far beyond the ear­ly sev­en­teenth-cen­tu­ry Japan in which the form of kabu­ki the­atre orig­i­nat­ed. Even 21st-cen­tu­ry West­ern­ers are quick to use the word when describ­ing any­thing elab­o­rate­ly per­for­ma­tive or melo­dra­mat­ic: in the neg­a­tive sense, it crit­i­cizes an exces­sive arti­fi­cial­i­ty; in the pos­i­tive one, it prais­es com­plex, nuance-laden mas­tery. Many schol­ars of kabu­ki will dis­agree about when, exact­ly, kabu­ki had its hey­day, but none would doubt the immor­tal­i­ty, for a kabu­ki actor of the late eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry, grant­ed by a Sharaku por­trait.

Also known to us as Tōshū­sai Sharaku (prob­a­bly not his real name), Sharaku worked in the form of yakusha‑e wood­block prints, a kind of ukiyo-e focus­ing on actors, but only for a scant ten months in 1794 and 1795, and not always to a warm pub­lic recep­tion.

“Renowned for cre­at­ing visu­al­ly bold prints that gave rare reveal­ing glimpses into the world of kabu­ki,” says the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art, “he was not only able to cap­ture the essen­tial qual­i­ties of kabu­ki char­ac­ters, but his prints also reveal, often with unflat­ter­ing real­ism, the per­son­al­i­ties of the actors who were famous for per­form­ing them.” Break­ing some­what from ukiyo‑e por­traitist tra­di­tion, “Sharaku did not ide­al­ize his sub­jects or attempt to por­tray them real­is­ti­cal­ly. Rather, he exag­ger­at­ed facial fea­tures and strove for psy­cho­log­i­cal real­ism.”

Nobody knows much about this mys­te­ri­ous artist’s back­ground or his life after yakusha‑e. Dur­ing it, he designed over 140 prints, and poten­tial­ly many more, giv­en the num­ber that remain unver­i­fi­able as his work. Though he did occa­sion­al por­traits of sumo wrestlers and war­riors, the major­i­ty of his por­traits depict actors, and sel­dom in an ide­al­ized fash­ion.

That sense of height­ened real­i­ty also brought with it a cer­tain vital­i­ty to that point unseen in yakusha‑e; art his­to­ri­an Muneshige Naraza­ki wrote that Sharaku could, with­in a sin­gle print of a kabu­ki actor or scene, depict “two or three lev­els of char­ac­ter revealed in the sin­gle moment of action form­ing the cli­max to a scene or per­for­mance.”

At the top of the post, we have three prints from the fourth and final peri­od of Sharaku’s short career: Ichikawa Ebizō as Kudō Sae­mon Suket­suneIchikawa Dan­jūrō VI as Soga no Gorō Tokimune, and Sawa­mu­ra Sōjūrō III as Sat­suma Gen­gob­ei. Below that, from top to bot­tom, appear Ōtani Oni­ji III in the Role of the Ser­vant EdobeiSegawa Kiku­jurō III as Oshizu, Wife of Tan­abe (one of the many female roles played with­out excep­tion by male actors after the kabu­ki the­atre attained its cur­rent form), Naka­mu­ra Nakazō II as the farmer Tsuchizō, actu­al­ly Prince Kore­ta­ka, and Arashi Ryūzō I as Ishibe Kin­kichi, which set an auc­tion record for an ukiyo‑e print by sell­ing for  €389,000 at Piasa in 2009.

If you want to learn a lit­tle more about kabu­ki the­atre itself, have a look at TED-Ed’s four-minute primer on its his­to­ry. Though many of us may now regard kabu­ki as a high clas­si­cal art form, it began as a “peo­ple’s” ver­sion of the aris­to­crat­ic noh the­atre, and an avant-garde one at that. Its very name appears to derive from the Japan­ese verb kabuku, which means “to lean” or “to be out of the ordi­nary.” Sharaku must have seen how inci­sive­ly this the­atre of the unusu­al, already long estab­lished by this day, could present the ele­ments of real life; did he con­sid­er it his mis­sion, dur­ing his wood­block-design­ing stint, to bring the ele­ments of real life into its por­trai­ture?

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Down­load 2,500 Beau­ti­ful Wood­block Prints and Draw­ings by Japan­ese Mas­ters (1600–1915)

Down­load Hun­dreds of 19th-Cen­tu­ry Japan­ese Wood­block Prints by Mas­ters of the Tra­di­tion

What Hap­pens When a Japan­ese Wood­block Artist Depicts Life in Lon­don in 1866, Despite Nev­er Hav­ing Set Foot There

Splen­did Hand-Scroll Illus­tra­tions of The Tale of Gen­jii, The First Nov­el Ever Writ­ten (Cir­ca 1120)

Behold the Mas­ter­piece by Japan’s Last Great Wood­block Artist: View Online Tsukio­ka Yoshitoshi’s One Hun­dred Aspects of the Moon (1885)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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