Drama and Dynamism in Kabuki Theatre: an Introduction to the Kabuki Actor Collection

October 02, 2019 4 min read

Drama and Dynamism in Kabuki Theatre: an Introduction to the Kabuki Actor Collection-Rising Sun Prints Blog

It’s been nearly a year since Rising Sun Prints began and in that time we've explored many of the realms of ukiyo-e, releasing collections from some of the biggest names in the genre, from Hokusai to Hiroshige. 

But with those artists comes a strong predilection towards landscape prints, which formed the majority of our previous collections. Although both popular and worthy of our fixation, landscape prints actually arrived late in the development of the ukiyo-e movement.

As the lead curator, I (Peach) am incredibly excited about the launch of this latest collection, which stands as a fascinating look into the history of ukiyo-e and the culture of the ‘floating world’ itself. Ukiyo-e began by illustrating the pleasures and leisures of the edo period, such as courtesans or kabuki actors, or even kabuki actors playing the roles of courtesans. They began as advertisements for theaters and teahouses, used to entice audiences into the pleasure district. 

Most importantly, they laid the foundation of the genre and we felt the need to correct this glaring omission of one of the most important and foundational genres of ukiyo-e! 

When curating the collection, I wanted to include the leading lights of the yakusha-e genre: Kunisada, Sharaku and KunichikaOne could argue that Toyokuni I should be included here, but I felt that these artists’ work were more vivid and dynamic; making the perfect features for your walls at home.

The collection has a wide range of exemplary pieces, from portraits to triptychs of heroes and villains, in a variety of styles and from a range of plays. All the while being highly aesthetically stimulating.  


Heroes in the plays, heroes on the street

Kabuki actors were as popular as modern-day movie stars, and everyone wanted prints of their icons. Often actors were portrayed in their finest roles, and became billboard-like endorsements for upcoming shows. The kabuki actors themselves were also inspired by yakusha-e, who intensified their acting as a result of the glorified prints that were made of them. 


 Emphasising character

The prints came in a variety of formats; close-up portraits (ōkubi-e), half portraits, whole body poses, triptychs, or occasionally (in Sharaku’s case) double portraits. The choice of format usually depended on the aspect of the actor’s role that the artist wanted to highlight or exaggerate; be it the facial expression, the movement, or even the costumes. 

Often actors would strike poses such as ‘mie’; a cross-eyed expression that suggests intense emotion. Another important element to look out for is the placement of the actors’ hands. As the artists had the difficult task of summing up an entire play or character in one image, the hands often suggested the actor’s next actions or hidden motives, as you can see in this print by Kunisada:

Cultural signifiers

The stories behind kabuki plays drew inspiration from a number of places. Many developed from traditional Chinese or Japanese literature, myths, legends, and religions such as Shintoism. More often than not, plays also derived from societal happenings; events in Edo that were parodied or dramatised into theatre. So these pieces are an incredibly revealing window into the culture of 18th and 19th century Edo. Take a look at the actors’ dress, their hairstyles and their tattoos. Although dramatised for artistic effect, they inform our idea about fashion and status and even contain subplots of their own.


The three artists selected for this collection have interesting histories of their own. Kunisada and Kunichika more directly to each other, whilst Sharaku was infamously a rogue in the world of yakusha-e.


Kunisada, the star attraction

Surpassing the renowned Hokusai in reputation and fame in the Edo period, Kunisada honed his niche in designing yakusha-e, which formed around two thirds of his ukiyo-e output. He was the leading light in kabuki actor prints, which is why we couldn’t help but select so many of his works for this collection. When it came to detail and pattern he never held back, and created some of the most intricately elaborate designs.


("Actor Iwai Kumesaburô III as the Shirabyoshi Dancer Asakeno” Kunisada, 1852)

(Kunisada, 1852)


Take a look at the precisely printed patterns here, they’re incredibly decorative yet still portray the movement of the actor’s costume, as you can see in the folds of the fan and the creases of the actor’s costume. It’s no wonder he became a master of yakusha-e at the renowned ‘Utagawa School’.


Kunichika, the vibrant designer

At the young age of 13, Kunichika became Kunisada’s apprentice, taking the ‘Kuni’ part of his name. He was taught his secrets behind his technique, which probably explains his preoccupation with designing yakusha-e. You can see distinct similarities between their work, but as Kunichika was on the cusp of the Meiji period, he was highly influenced by the rapidly changing styles and materials, such as new inks brought over from the west. 

("The actor Ichikawa Sadanji I as the fishmonger Fukashichi" Toyohara Kunichika, 1883)

(Toyohara Kunichika, 1883)

Take a look at this piece by Kunichika, with its brilliant colours and fascinating detail. Each colour would have been printed on individual blocks, but still he didn’t shy away from using as many as he could. He triumphantly shows his skill in using gradients, from the actor’s make-up to rounding the whites of his eyes, creating shadow and hinting at his knowledge of 3D-perspective. 


Sharaku, the enigmatic artist

Whilst Kunisada and Kunichika were wildly popular and commercially successful in their time, this was not the case for Sharaku. Unlike his contemporaries, this mysterious artist revelled in depicting the ugly truth behind kabuki actors and their roles, offending many of them.

(“Ōtani Oniji III as Yakko Edobei”, Tōshūsai Sharaku, 1794)

(“Tōshūsai Sharaku,1794)

Sharaku came out of nowhere in 1794, created nearly 150 prints over a 10 month period, and promptly disappeared. That’s approximately 1 print every 2 days! 

His style is instantly recognisable, often favouring a simple muted background - created using a ground-down mother of pearl paste called ‘mica’. Here you can see the villainous features of the actor’s role, but also the actor’s exaggerated features such his nose and hunched posture. Sharaku’s work shows the psychological realism of the character and also allowed the actor themselves to shine through, as Sharaku indulged in depicting their unique traits.


So come and take a look at this collection to explore the history behind the dramas and the exquisite techniques and symbolism used by these artists.

See the full collection here