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Linking Ryûkôsai and Sharaku

(Text and Photos by Peter Ujlaki)

Ryukosai fig 1No theatrical prints tower over ukiyo-e history like those of the Edo artist Tôshûsai Sharaku, a man regarded since his belated "discovery" (by a German) 100 years ago as the unsurpassed genius of the actor print genre.

Before Sharaku (act. 1794-95), and indeed long after him, theatrical ukiyo-e portraiture meant depicting actors in an idealized manner, never admitting evidence of the aging process or hints of ugliness. This was especially true with respect to onnagata, the males who represent women on stage.

In Sharaku's legendary 140-print oeuvre (see Sharaku), however, this convention was jettisoned in favor of a far more realistic approach. Not only are actors, including onnagata, revealed to have unflattering physical features, but some even look frail and insecure as they struggle to fill their roles with energy and credibility.

It seems the public of his day rejected Sharaku's psychological probing and hard-nosed treatment of its idols, and his career was over in ten months. But no matter; posterity now considers him the first modern artist of Japan, his prints, hugely expensive, are coveted worldwide, and easily 140 tons of paper are expended each year merely on the enigma of his identity. (The signature may have been a nom de plume for any of several men, or even a collective.)

Sharing the glory

Alas, from now on Sharaku hagiographers may need to frequently use the asterisk on their keyboards. A strong counter claim exists to at least one of his credited innovations, the rendering of popular onnagata in a less than tactful way. (Picture, if you will, a beauty with narrow eyes, small mouth, thick neck, and an old man’s hands and face.) It seems that Sharaku was preceded in this form of truth-telling — in some cases by more than several years — by an Osaka artist named Ryûkô Jokei.

Ryûkôsai (act. 1777-1809), like many a Kamigata ukiyo-e figure, was a theater fan who happened to dabble in actor portraits when the spirit moved him. The record shows that as early as 1780 this highly sophisticated and talented amateur was filling Kabuki picture books and prints with the same kind of portraiture (of sometimes the very same actors) one associates with Sharaku.


Ryukosai fig 2Though the imagery was published in Osaka, Kabuki culture travelled rather freely up and down the Tôkaidô in those years, and once in Edo such material would have easily come to the attention of Sharaku and his famous publisher, Tsutaya Jûzaburô.

People familiar with early Kamigata-e have long suspected Ryûkôsai's originality, but attempts to clarify the extent of Sharaku's indebtedness have been hampered by a paucity of suitable reference works and extant Ryûkôsai prints. The Osaka gentleman’s output — both in terms of number of designs and edition size — was miniscule.)

Recently, however, a comprehensive Ryûkôsai catalogue raisonne has appeared with illustrations of all known books and paintings as well as prints. Thanks to the compilation and dating efforts of (London-based) scholars Andrew Gerstle and Yano Akiko, the evidence is finally at hand to support the argument that the artistic vision associated with Sharaku was rooted in crucial ways in the work of Ryûkôsai.

Rather frustratingly, the catalog (published in Japan by Mukogawa Women's University) is seeing only limited distribution at this point. Let's hope that an English-language version appears soon, to help complete the elevation from obscurity of a figure crucial to the legacy not only of Kamigata-e, but of all ukiyo-e.

Fig 1 (left) The actor Yoshizawa Iroha I as the courtesan Azuma, 1/1793

Fig 2 (right) The actor Yamashita Kinsaku II as the fortune-teller Kohagi, 1/1793

This article originally appeared in Daruma, no. 66, Spring 2010. Copyrighted © text and pictures reprinted with permission.

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