Japanese actor prints

Kabuki theatre developed from a popular entertainment performed by female dancers in Kyoto. This was banned in 1629 as detrimental to public morals, and replaced by young men's Kabuki. From 1652 this was replaced by Kabuki performed by adult males.

Although the government attempted to regulate Kabuki, the theatres, and their neighbouring teahouses and houses of often homosexual assignation became thriving centres of urban culture, part of the 'floating world'. The leading actors, including the onnagata, male performers of female roles, influenced fashion and taste and quickly became the subject of popular woodblock prints. It is likely that between one third and a half of prints published in the Edo period depicted Kabuki actors.

Three schools of artists specialized in designing actor prints. In the first half of the eighteenth century the Torii school was prominent. They started out using an exaggerated, muscular drawing style which captured the action of the animated aragoto ('rough stuff') style of the Kabuki.

Later the Torii were eclipsed by the Katsukawa school. The founder, Shunshō and his contemporary Bunchō, were more restrained, and concentrated on capturing the likenesses of the actors (nigao-e).

The Katsukawa school gave way to the Utagawa school (Toyokuni and Kunisada) from the 1790s onwards, and a return to a more florid schematic style.

In addition, the enigmatic Tōshūsai Sharaku appeared briefly like a passing comet in 1794-5. In 1794 he produced a unique group of almost thirty highly individualised portraits in the ōkubi-e ('big head') format. These exaggerate the expressive quirks and gestures of the leading actors of his day.

It is often possible to date actor prints by referring to surviving printed banzuke (playbills) and yakusha hyōbanki (actor critiques). This is useful when studying the chronological development of an Ukiyo-e artist's style.

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