Tôshûsai Sharaku (active 1794-95)
Tôshûsai Sharaku was one of art historys most fascinating figures. He produced an astonishing body of work in
a very brief working period, from the fifth month of 1794 to the first month of 1795 (totaling 10 months due to an intercalary
month). The number of works was also small, although the reported count varies depending on whether one considers polyptychs as single
compositions or as separate sheets and, indeed, which sheets belong together as one design. If we simplify and count each sheet separately,
the total would be 145 known individual sheets. The following table presents Sharaku's prints in chronologically arranged groups.
|5th mo., 1794
|28 ôban mica-ground [all ôkubi-e or half-length]
|7th - 8th mo., 1794
| 8 ôban, 30 hosoban [all full-length]
|11th mo., 1794
|4 ôban, 13 aiban, 47 hosoban [full-length except 3 aiban ôkubi-e]
|1st mo., 1795
|5 aiban, 10 hosoban [all full-length]
There are also 18 known drawings by Sharaku: 10 double portraits of sumo wrestlers (9 lost in the 1923 Kantô earthquake,
1 surviving in the former Henri Vever collection), and 8 drawings of actors in the 8th month, 1794 (these were mitate of unstaged
Finding the real Sharaku has been a matter of controversy and, so far, he remains unidentified. One theory assigning Sharaku an
Osaka-based identity appears to be the most plausible. The historian Saitô Gesshin wrote in his 1844 update to the Zôho
ukiyo-e ruikô ("Enlarged History of Floating World Prints") that Sharaku's original name was Saitô
Jûrôbei and that he lived in Hachôbori, Edo while he was a visiting Nô actor in the troupe of the Lord of Awa.
Indeed, a Nô actor named Saitô Jûrôbei is named in a later Nô program of 1816, so we know that such
an actor existed. Also, the Lord of Awa arrived in Edo on 4/6/1793, then was absent from 4/21/1794 through 4/2/1796, possibly indicating
that if Sharaku (i.e., the Nô actor Jûrôbei) was not obliged to accompany his lord, he would have been free to explore
his printmaking during the period when Sharaku's prints appeared. In addition, Sharaku might have been trained in Osaka, as his style
of drawing was closer to the Osaka master Ryûkôsai than to any Edo artist of the period, and Ryûkôsai's actor
portraits in hosoban format preceded Sharaku's working period by about 3 years. Also, some of his portraits were of Osaka actors performing
in Edo, perhaps an indication of his special interest in these particular entertainers. Overall, the evidence for an Osaka connection is
only circumstantial, but it is nevertheless consistent chronologically and plausible aesthetically.
All the other theories lack convincing corroborating evidence (these include claims that Sharaku was, among others, the artist Hokusai,
Toyokuni, Kiyomasa, or Utamaro; the publisher Tsutaya Jûzaburô; the haiku poet Sharaku residing in Nara and appearing in
manuscripts from 1776 and 1794; and a certain Katayama Sharaku, the husband of a disciple named Nami at the Shintô headquarters at
the Konkô-kyô, who was said to have resided at Tenma Itabashi-chô, Osaka).
Explanations for Sharaku's mysteriously brief career and sudden disappearance are often based on a statement by the artist and writer
Ota Nanpô (with additions in 1800 by Sasaya Kuniori), who wrote during the Kansei era in Ukiyo-e ruikô ["History
of Floating World Prints," original lost, surviving copy from 1831] that Sharaku's excessive realism was considered strange by his
contemporaries and thus his popularity was short-lived. Yet it is curious that among Sharaku's 31 ôkubi-e ("large head prints"),
as many as 20 impressions of some designs have survived, while the fewest number of surviving impressions for any given Sharaku ôkubi-e design is 7. Other artists of the period who designed ôkubi-e (Utamaro, Toyokuni, Kunimasa, Shunei) fared poorly in comparison, with many
of their designs known in only 1 to 3 impressions. Could the higher number of surviving Sharaku ôkubi-e be taken as a sign that perhaps
while not popular in general, Sharaku had a small but dedicated number of patrons who preserved his prints more carefully that
did those who collected other artists of the period?
If Sharaku did not quit printmaking simply because his prints failed to sell, perhaps there were other contributing circumstances that forced him
to abandon print design. If Sharaku was indeed Saitô Jûrôbei, did he have commitments to his Nô troupe or to his
lord that forced an abrupt end to his printmaking career? What effect, if any, did patronage have on Sharaku's disappearance? If he had private
means or sponsorship, what role did it play in his choice of style, plays, and actors, or did the initial support for Sharaku's unconventional
portraiture run its course rather quickly? Could disappointing print sales have led his publisher, Tsutaya Jûzaburô, to withdraw
the encouragement or support Sharaku needed to continue? It is interesting to note that Sharaku's later designs relied more and more on
compositions not directly related to actual stage performances (a genre called mitate), with actors in roles they did not perform for the
given plays. One theory suggests that this trend indicates Sharaku faced increasingly limited access to the theater and its actors (for reasons unknown).
Consequently, so the theory goes, by producing too many portraits that did not satisfy theater fans, his prints failed to sell.
Sharaku's Artistic Style
In order to explain the startling impact of Sharaku's designs, we attempt to surmise his intentions as revealed in his compositions. Sharaku's
prints were indeed descriptive and expressive of the actors' presence on the stage and of the roles they performed. The designs reflected
not only what was seen on the surface but also empathized with what was being felt by both the actor as a real person and by the stage
character he was performing. The most expressive of his portraits were more complex psychologically than were the portraits of his
contemporaries. (Even Sharaku's full-length portraits, generally
less admired than his magnificent ôkubi-e, offer interesting and often successful explorations into theatrical characters and
their relationships as portrayed on the stage.)
If we examine the illustration above, we see the actor Arashi Ryûzô as Ishibe Kinkichi from the play Hana-ayame Bunroku
Soga (Blooming Iris, Soga of the Bunroku Era) performed at the Miyako Theater, 5/1794. This was a popular vendetta play
in which the Soga brothers attempted to avenge their father's murder of 20 years earlier. Kinkichi was a mean-spirited money lender (in
one scene he kicks and beats up a character named Bunzô — see below), and his crude demeanor and grimacing mouth seem to suggest
something of his venal character. Sharaku's artistic style was one in which truthfulness was manifested by simultaneous portrayals of both
the stage persona and the actor himself. We can also observe Sharaku's use of bold, thick lines for the eyes, eyebrows, and mouth, in
contrast to the thin, delicate lines of the remainder of the face.
Perhaps Sharaku intended to concentrate on or even exaggerate the expressive possibilities of the eyes and mouth, key aspects of physiognomy
used to great effect by kabuki actors in their mie ("displays" or static poses at climactic moments in the plays). Sharaku's
use of mica backgrounds, although not original to him, might also have served as devices meant to mimic reflected visages in mirrors and thus
suggest a level of realism important to his artistic vision. His mica-ground portraits served as reflections of a confluent physical and
emotional reality to far greater degree than did the actor portraits of earlier ukiyo-e artists.
Arguably the most extraordinary portraits by Sharaku are those of fleshy, middle-aged actors performing the roles of young
women. In such works we are witness to both a feminized sensibility (onnagata means "woman's manner") and an undeniable corporeal
reality of an older male. The juxtaposition of these two basic aspects in Sharaku's hands resulted in what are arguably the
greatest portraits in ukiyo-e.
The illustration on the immediate right is a portrait of the supreme onnagata Segawa Kikunojô III (1751-1810) as Oshizu, the wife
of a minor character named Tanabe Bunzô in the same play discussed above. Oshizu's husband was a stalwart supporter of the Soga brothers
vendetta. Sharaku designed eleven prints for this performance, and the portrait of Oshizu is one of the best.
It is extraordinary that a somewhat overweight, middle-aged man could bring such female characters to life in such a convincing
manner. Yet Kikunojô did indeed do this, specializing in ingenues and courtesans. He was ranked the best actor in female
roles in Edo in 1782, and by 1790 he commanded the huge annual salary of 1,850 ryô. Kikunojô's nickname included the
title of a Shintô deity (Daimyôjin), and there was even a makeup named after him. He was still at the height of his fame
when depicted in Sharaku's print. Afterwards, in 1808, he was made zagashira ("troupe head"), the highest ranking position
in a theater company and very rare for an onnagata to achieve.
In Sharaku's portrait we do not see an idealization of the actor's physicality, either to conform to the 43-year old Kikunojô's
exalted status or to the young female theatrical character he is playing. There is certainly an expression of femininity and poise in this
depiction, but the man beneath the robes is also present, his full face and prominent nose clearly meant to capture his actual likeness.
Perhaps if Sharaku's portraits were indeed too truthful for his contemporaries, it might have been his onnagata ôkubi-e that tipped the
balance against his being widely popular. Today, however, these designs are the most sought after and widely admired among the masterpieces
of ukiyo-e printmaking. © 2001-2002 by John Fiorillo
- Keyes, R.: "The Art of Sharaku," in: Dai Sharaku ten (Great Sharaku Exhibition). Tobu Museum of Art, 1995, pp. 182-190.
- Leiter, S.: New Kabuki Encyclopedia. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1997, pp. 562 and 719.
- Narazaki, M.: Sharaku: The Enigmatic Ukiyo-e Master. Yokyo: Kodansha, 1983.
- Suwa Haruo: "Sharaku and Kabuki: A Reconsideration of Sharaku's Prints," in: Dai Sharaku ten (Great Sharaku Exhibition). Tobu Museum of Art, 1995, pp. 198-204.
- Suzuki, J.: Masterworks of Ukiyo-e Vol. 2: Sharaku. (Trans. J. Bester). Kodansha: Tokyo, 1968.