Fine Arts of Asia
Floating World Ukioy-e


Last Master of the Grand Style

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It is interesting to note that both Toyokuni and Sharaku were making images of the same actors with the same decorative costumes in the same roles at the Miyako-za during the 1794 performances. Since certain of Toyokuni's designs appeared earlier that year than the same designs by Sharaku, it would appear that Sharaku may have been influenced by Toyokuni. It seems quite clear that they knew each other, but the extent of that relationship will never be known.

illustration 3

During this same period from 1795 to 1800, Izumiya Ichibei published another series of actor prints for Toyokuni identical to the 'Views of Actors on Stage', but with no identifying series title. These are also full-length figures against a gray ground. Like the series mentioned earlier, this group has never been adequately cataloged. It contains many wonderful studies of actors caught in moments of great suspense.

Toyokuni employed his full power as an artist and created in these images a style quite distinctive from any other. His power of observation was acute and focused on the drama being conveyed. He spared no efforts in getting the effect he wanted, making great demands on the woodblock cutters to press their skills to the limits and on the printers to print every nuance of color and texture. On certain prints of this period, whiting was occasionally added to the actors face to simulate make-up. White mica, and more rarely spattered ink, was used as background to dramatize a pose. A rough cord was sometimes tied under the rubbing baren used to strike the impression from the blocks so that a textured background could be obtained. (see illustrations 1 and 4) A splendid print from this group shows the actor Bando Hikosaburo III as Soga no Juro with a rat-trap in the play Furiwakegami Aoyagi Soga, performed at the Miyako-za theater in 1796. The actor is shown in a costume with a design of black crows and a design of plover on his jacket, a brilliant decorative device. (see illustration 3)

Many people who are unfamiliar with the Kabuki theatre find it difficult to understand the distorted poses and expressions of the actors shown in the prints. Kabuki is a highly stylized form of expression, which developed from the slightly older Joruri (puppet theater), where the action was marked by the jerky movements of the puppets in the hands of the puppet masters. Kabuki began as entertainment for the common people in the rich Japanese mercantile society of the 17th century. The Kabuki actor relied upon action and gesture as well as speech to convey the drama. By his posture and by varying the pitch of his voice, he could imitate young people or old, lovers or villains. The chorus and musicians left the actor free to intensify the plot with his exuberant pantomime, while they supplied the thread of the story.

Subjects for Kabuki plays may be roughly divided into two major categories: historical dramas (jidaimono) which glorify Japanese legend and history with its legions of heroes, heroines, fools

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© Merlin C. Dailey 2003