‘Yakusha-e’, translates literally to mean “actor pictures”, and emerged as a direct result of the artistry, flair and popularity of kabuki theatre. Along with beauty prints (Bijin-Ga), actor prints the were the earliest print genre, and inspired many artists in Japan and across the world (even Van Gogh was an avid collector).
The name ‘kabuki’ is formed of the kanji characters that mean ‘sing’, ‘dance’, and ‘skill’. But perhaps the best way to understand it is from its humble historical beginnings.
At the very beginning of the Edo period - in 1603 - a shinto shrine maiden named Okuni began performing in a dried-up river bed in Kyoto. She gathered together a troupe of female outcasts and prostitutes and began telling stories through dance and drama. It was wildly popular and drew large crowds, so naturally rival troupes formed quickly.
Kabuki then moved into the pleasure district of Edo, the ‘Yoshiwara’, where performers were also available for prostitution. As it was an exclusively female production, actors played male and female roles, and kabuki became both a satirical and erotic form of entertainment.
(Shintomi-za theatre, built in 1878 to replace the theatre that burnt 2 years prior. Photo from 1910)
Kabuki theatres were the place to see and be seen. The performances began setting fashion trends, inspired souvenir-makers and established pop culture in Japan. But just over 25 years later, strict censorship of the Shogunate tightened further. Women’s kabuki (‘onna-kabuki) was banned for being too erotic, and their roles were taken up by young boys. As they were also available for prostitution, they were promptly banned too. By the mid-1600’s, kabuki cast were all male, establishing ‘yarrō-kabuki’.
The art of kabuki was adapted by each and every performer. In its exclusively masculine form, the emphasis was no longer on singing or dancing, but on the drama, expressions and emotions that were displayed by the actors. The focus of Kabuki shifted to the actors’ personalities, and they became celebrities.
Prints that were made in the early days of kabuki were mostly used to advertise upcoming performances and tea-houses, and to lure audiences into the pleasure district. But as the actors became increasingly popular (paralleling the beauties of the day) the genre of yakusha-e truly began.
Early yakusha-e designs were quite simple, typically featuring the actor in their role on a plain background. As ukiyo-e developed, specialist schools opened, and yakusha-e went through a revolution. Artists wanted to set themselves apart, so they formed individual styles and started portraying the actors behind the roles. They began using the technique of cropping, to create close-up portraits (‘ōkubi-e’) and also half-body portraits. They also introduced backgrounds, other characters and props.
In 1700 the first yakusha-e book was made, featuring a series of actor portraits from different plays. This quickly caught on, and became the customary publishing format for yakusha-e.
Ichikawa Danjūrō I was one of the most famous actors in Edo history. He invented many of the traditional kabuki attributes from the use of make-up (‘kesho’) to the actor's movements. He created the most famous pose, the ‘mie’, which was to be performed at the climax of a scene. In the pose, the actor moves their hands, feet and head in broad gestures and widens their eyes as large as possible, often crossing them if the scene is particularly emotional. Actors were often illustrated in the mie pose by yakusha-e artists because of this intense characterisation.
While kabuki was known for being more style over substance, it was still very much a narrative-centred artform. The plays drew inspiration from myths, legends, ancient Japanese and Chinese literature and scandals from Edo society. The plot lines were often complicated and theatrical and had many subplots that became their own performances. Any given play would contain star-crossed lovers, the use of disguise, honourable suicide, fighting heroes and villains and satire. Yakusha-e artists would’ve had a difficult task of condensing all these elements into one single image. To conquer this, artists would use symbolism to subtly hint at the narrative.
The leading light in yakusha-e was Kunisada, who often blurred the boundaries between the kabuki play and the original story in his designs. His dynamic prints located the character in the scene, and their actions and expressions hinted at their next moves or ulterior motives. His unique talents in storytelling made him the most commercially successful ukiyo-e master of the time.
Another renowned artist (although not in his day), is Sharaku. His works were crucial in satirically portraying the actors themselves, revealing their imperfections and even exaggerating them. Something that no artist had dared to do.
Symbolism played a vital role in personifying the actors and representing the themes in the plays. Their make-up was an essential part of their costumes. So important, in fact, that actors would take imprints of their faces on cloth after the performance and sell them as souvenirs. Red make-up was used on hero characters, blue on villains, and lines exaggerated features and expressions for effect.
The kimono and costumes also embodied moods and themes and often even hinted at that character’s destiny. Hexagons, for instance, signify good fortune, whilst cherry blossoms represent a transient life.
Just as in the beginning when women played both gender roles, so did the male actors, and it was common for a kabuki actor to specialise in one or the other. ‘Onnogata’ was the term for a female character played by a man, and yakusha-e artists predominantly flattered the actor by making their features more feminine. Often, it is said, onnogata actors would even stay as their roles off-stage.
(Kunisada, 1852) (Photograph of an Onnogata, 1910)
Owing to the ‘Tenpo reforms’ implicated in 1841, the making of yakusha-e (and Bijin-Ga) was banned, as they were deemed as ‘luxury items’, the making of which resulted in harsh punishments. So, even when the ban was no longer strictly enforced 10 years later, artists were still wary of returning to their art as enthusiastically as before. Often, out of safety, they didn’t even include the actor’s names on their prints.
However, after another 10 years of steady growth, a period referred to as “A Flowering Age”, this censorship ceased. Things changed rapidly with the introduction of Western materials such as new inks and the idea of perspective, and yakusha-e thrived once more. The last traditional yakusha-e designer is thought to have been Kunichika, whose work was made on the cusp of the Edo period to the Meiji period. His death in the early 1900’s marks the end of the art form as we know it.
The art then became a specialist niche for Japanese printmakers for a few decades. It wasn’t until the end of World War II that it received another resurgence, and was distributed further internationally. This led to the creation of new prints, called ‘shin-hanga’.
It’s impossible to know just how many exquisite yakusha-e designs were made in a period of over 300 years. Both kabuki and yakusha-e survived many setbacks and changes, and the prints provide an important window into the vibrancy of Japan’s cultural history.
Discover our newly curated collection of striking actor prints and delve further into the drama of kabuki and yakusha-e below: