Sharaku was Edo’s mystery man, the artist that’s left historians’ heads scratching. He's known as ‘the enigmatic artist’, because he appeared out of nowhere, made wildly unusual (and unpopular) kabuki actor prints and promptly vanished.
Aside from the mystery surrounding his life, his work is also known for its unusually truthful and largely unflattering depictions of his subjects. Sharaku seemed more interested in the psychological realism of the actors and their roles than the idealised portraits that were the custom in yakusha-e.
As kabuki was an all-male theatre arts, men usually specialised in playing either male or female roles. When a man specialised in female roles (an ‘onnagata’), he was often feminised by the yakusha-e artist in their portraits in order to praise his acting skills. Enter Sharaku; the first artist to reveal the truth behind the onnagata. Exaggerated expressions, crooked noses and broad shoulders were not the norm for supposedly female portraits, but Sharaku didn’t care. He created caricature-like portraits of the moviestar actors, seeming to poke fun at the actor-centred art form.
Nearly all of Sharaku’s designs were of kabuki actors, and his artist style is immediately recognisable. His backgrounds were most commonly of a deep silver mica, made using ground-down mother of pearl, which offered a flat but shimmering background. This gave his portraits a radiating intensity, allowing the brightness of the paper and inks to illuminate the subject.
Yakusha-e artists commonly portrayed artists in sweeping poses with dynamic expressions and dramatic make-up, swathed in richly detailed coloured fabrics. But Sharaku preferred muted tones, deadpan faces, limited detail and a richness of empathy. He depicted his subjects with disproportionate anatomies; heads too big for their bodies, small hands and very large noses. Although he exaggerated many features for satirical effect, he certainly had a ‘less is more’ approach to his work.
Who was Sharaku?
The only reliable history we have comes from the dates and seals on his existing prints. Toshusai Sharaku appeared in May 1794, made around 150 prints and then disappeared in February the following year. That’s the equivalent of designing one print every two days!
He’s seen as a supernatural phenomenon and many theories exist around who he was and what it was that led him to disappear.
With no evidence of having any professional training, Sharaku can be considered a self-taught ukiyo-e artist. During his brief but prolific career, Sharaku also had dramatic changes in style and an abruptness that seemed very unusual.
Some sources claim that Sharaku was actually many artists working under one pseudonym, others suggest that Sharaku was a noh actor, while some believe that in fact he was secretly the famous artist Hokusai - who just wanted to test out a new way of working. Here we will briefly discuss these main theories:
Sharaku as Many Artists
As Sharaku’s work is seen as being cartoon-like, it’s often thought that his flippant depictions were a way of mocking kabuki actors and their swollen egos. That being said, the name ‘Sharaku’ may have derived from the word ‘Sharakusai’, which means impertinent, cheeky and impudent. A tongue-in-cheek pseudonym that represents a sub-genre of yakusha-e, rather than a singular artist.
This suggests that the work of Sharaku may in fact have been produced by many artists, under a name that represented a small publishing house. Whilst this would explain the dramatic change of styles and mysterious lack of art history, there is no other evidence or confirmation of this theory.
Sharaku as a Noh Actor
The most popular and widely accepted history of Sharaku is that he was a Noh actor, named Saitō Jūrōbei. This is the only theory that holds some historical basis, having being written about in 1844.
Jūrōbei was an actor serving under the Lord of Awa in modern-day Tokushima. His Noh troupe visited Edo in 1793 along with their Lord, who stayed in theHachôbori area. His Lord was then absent during April 1794 and February 1796, which coincides with the dates on Sharaku’s prints. During his Lord’s absence,Jūrōbei would’ve had the freedom and time to explore printmaking, which also explains his disappearance from the ukiyo-e scene when his Lord returned. Comparisons have also been drawn between Sharaku’s portraits and the masks used in Noh theatre.
Although this theory doesn’t explain the lack of evidence for Sharaku’s apprentice training, many sources suggest that he could have been trained in Osaka, which is close to Tokushima. In Osaka, the master printmaker Ryûkôsai’s work is fairly similar to Sharaku’s, which seems to be a common circumstantial connection for Sharaku having had printmaking training.
(Ryûkôsai Jokei, 1792) (Sharaku, 1794)
Sharaku as Hokusai
One of the most ground-breaking theories for Sharaku’s identity is that he was the ukiyo-e master printmaker Hokusai. Hokusai seemed to disappear from the art world during 1792 and 1796, during which Sharaku’s prints are dated. Like many ukiyo-e artists, Hokusai changed names throughout his career and it was common for artists to have multiple pseudonyms during times of censorship in Japan. Hokusai and Sharaku’s work bare little resemblance, but supporters of the theory argue that this could be due to a change in woodblock carver.
There are many further identity theories that surround Sharaku, although most of which have been discredited or lack evidence. So the mystery still remains.
But his disappearance reveals much about the popularity and legacy of his work. Why did he abandon his work so abruptly? Perhaps the unpopularity of his caricatures meant that his work didn’t sell, so he lacked the funds to continue. Or maybe his unflattering portrayals of actors meant that he was no longer granted access to the theatres to draw them.
Another plausible explanation for Sharaku’s disappearance lies in the hands of his publisher, Tsutaya Jūzaburō. He was perhaps the most famous publisher at the time, notable for publishing works by the likes of Utamaro and others. But in 1795, at the same time as Sharaku, all of Tsutaya’s artists left his publishing house. Some continued working elsewhere, but Sharaku did not. Perhaps he felt that his work as a ukiyo-e designer was done, or perhaps it was Tsutaya himself who was Sharaku.
What stands out in Sharaku’s work amongst all others is his frank realism and his use of satirical grimaces on his subjects. Maybe this could be further evidence for Sharaku’s identity as a Noh actor - this excessive use of expression. His attitude to designing was less about creating aesthetically pleasing images and more about conveying emotion and drama; showing the nitty-gritty side to kabuki that no other artist dared to show. He empathised with the actors on stage, showing aspects of their characters that perhaps they didn’t want to show, or didn’t realise they did.
His enigmatic life and distinctive style has led Sharaku to become the most highly sought-after artist, whose puzzling history matches no other.
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