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Katsukawa Shun'ei (勝川春英)


Shunei kikunojo as yamauba Katsukawa Shun'ei (勝川春英), the son of a landlord named Isoda Jirôbei (磯田次郎兵衛), trained with Katsukawa Shunshô. His earliest known work dates from 1778, a yakusha-e (actor print: 役者絵) signed with his personal name, Kyûjirô (久次郎). Another of his pseudonyms or (art or studio name: 號) was Kyûtokusai (九徳齋). Shun'ei was able to devote himself to the arts because his family had a steady income from their rental property in Edo. Besides print design, Shun'ei was a practitioner of gidayû (chanted narration: 義太夫) for ballad dramas in the puppet and kabuki theaters, accompanying himself on the samisen (three-stringed instrument: 三味線). He had a wide circle of professional friends and colleagues, collaborating with some on various projects. These artists included Kitagawa Utamaro, Katsukawa Shunchô, and Utagawa Toyokuni I. He was also known to have had twenty or more pupils.

The firsy use of the name Shun'ei (春英) appears to have been in 11/1779 for an ehon banzuke (picture-book theater program: 絵本番付) published for the play Azuma no mori sakae Kusunoki (Azuma Forest: The flourishing Kusunoki family: 吾嬬森榮楠) at the Ichimura-za, Edo, which starred the actor Segawa Kikunojô III (瀬川菊之丞) as Michichiba.

Shun'ei was a prolific artist whose main line of production was yakusha-e, although he also designed some bijinga (pictures of beautiful women: 美人画), musha-e (warrior prints: 武者絵), sumô-e (wrestler prints: 相撲絵), and a few uki-e ("floating" or perspective pictures: 浮絵 or 浮繪) and surimono (privately commissioned prints: 摺物). In addition, Ehon (illustrated books: 絵本), in particular kibyôshi (satirical illustrated books: 黄表紙), are known by him, and he also provided images for a seven-volume kabuki guide called Shibai kinmô zue (Illustrated guide to the theater: 劇場訓蒙図). The roughly ten-year span from the mid-1780s to mid-1790s was Shun'ei's most active period. After about 1797, his productivity in print design seems to have declined. A few years later, around 1800, he took over as head of the Katsukawa school of actor-print artists, which meant that he took on the training of a large number of pupils.

Shunei kikunojo as yamaubaThe hosoban-format design at the top right, from 1787, portrays Segawa Kikunôjô III (瀬川菊之亟) as Yamauba (山姥). Shun'ei portrayed Kikunôjô III many times, helping to establish a distinctive nigao (facial likeness: 似顔) for the actor. The role of Yamauba ("mountain witch": 山姥) was associated with legends about a mountain woman who was often accompanied by her child of herculean strength named Kintarô (金太郎 also called Kaidômaru 怪童丸 and as an adult, Sakata no Kintoki 坂田金時). In various folk legends, Yamauba was a demonic figure with supernatural powers living deep in the mountains with monkeys and deer while raising Kintarô. Kitagawa Utamaro designed a large number of prints on this theme, often focusing on Yamauba's motherly love for her golden boy.

Another rare hosoban from a series of bust portraits by Shun'ei displays his skill at rendering expressive faces. Published by Iseya Jisuke (伊勢屋河助 seal "Iseji" 伊勢河) about 1790-92, the image on the left portrays the actor Matsumoto Koshirô IV (松本幸四郎), who is identified in the rectangular cartouche by his yagô (house or guild name: 屋号), Kôraiya (高麗屋), and in the scalloped roundel by his haigô (literary or poetry name: 俳号), Kinkô (錦江). This manner of identification applies to all the prints in the series; some of the designs do not include the publisher seal of Iseji. Despite the relatively small size of this format, the power of the portrait is evident in the intense glare and wide, down-turned mouth. The upward sweep of the eye makeup gives Koshirô a distinctly alert countenance.

Ôkubi-e ("large head prints": 大首絵) on single-sheets first appeared in the 1770s, the earliest probably being uchiwa-e (fan prints: 團扇絵 or 団扇絵) and then standard single-sheet prints. Both Katsukawa Shunshô and Katsukawa Shunkô designed half-length actor portraits in 1780, but the first important series of ôkubi-e did not appear until 1788-89 when Shunkô produced especially dramatic ôkubi-e. Then, in the 1790s, artists such as Katsukawa Shun'ei, Katsukawa Shun'en, Tôshûsai Sharaku, Utagawa Toyokuni I, and Utagawa Kunimasa all designed yakusha ôkubi-e ("large head actor prints": 役者大首絵). Shunei produced mica-ground yakusha ôkubi-e in the aiban (間判 approx. 330 x 230 mm) format as early as 1/1794, four months before Sharaku's better known and critically acclaimed examples in the slightly larger ôban (大判 approx. 380 x 270) format. Even so, it would seem that Shun'ei's publishers were intent on further capitalizing on the fashion for yakusha ôkubi-e after the prints by Tôshûsai Sharaku and Utagawa Toyokuni I enjoyed brisk sales starting in 5/1794.

Shunei kikunojo as yamaubaShun'ei's kuro-kira-e (black mica prints: 黒雲母絵), which survive in very few impressions, were also his first ôkubi-e ("large-head or bust portraits: 大首絵) in the aiban format. One example is shown on the right, a portrait of Bandô Hikosaburô III (坂東彦三郎) as Kudô Suketsune (工藤左衛門祐経) in Gohiiki no hana aikyô Soga (御曳花愛敬曽我) at the Kawarazaki-za (河原崎座), Edo in 1/1794. This play was one of the many Soga monogatari (Tales about the Soga: 曾我物語) involving two brothers (Soga no Jûrô Sukenari 曽我の十郎祐成and Soga no Gorô Tokimune 曽我の五郎時宗) hell-bent on avenging their father's murder by Kudô no Suketsune. While endlessly elaborated upon in the adaptations, the vendetta was based on an actual historical incident. These Soga jidaimono (lit., "period pieces" or historical dramas: 時代物), were quintessential examples of adauchi mono (revenge plays: 仇打ち物), and were so popular that they were staged annually for kabuki each New Year. Shun'ei's portrait, and a few others like it, presumably inspired Sharaku's publisher, Tsutaya Jûsaburô, to release the famous 28 mica-background ôban prints by Sharaku in 5/1794.

Although his bijinga number a tiny percentage of his known prints, Shun'ei did produce some notable designs in that genre. His 12 known designs comprising the series Oshi-e-gata (Patterns for collage pictures: おし絵形), or padded-cloth pictures, published by Nishimura Yohachi (Eijudô) circa 1792-94, are among the most charming bijinga by any artist of the period. They are characterized by spirited young beauties captured at joyful moments during dance performances. In the design below left, a young beauty performs the shishi-mai (Lion dance: 獅子舞), popular at shrines and festivals, and in the kabuki theater. Lion dances have antecedents of Chinese origin that were first introduced into Japan around the sixth–seventh centuries. Later, folk dances also contributed to the development of shishi-mai, as well as lion dances given by street performers at the New Year. Rather than wear a traditional lion's head costume, Shun'ei's dancer merely holds a fierce-looking lion puppet. Her black robe is patterned with cranes, perhaps a reference to the crest of the Nakamura family acting lineage. Although the dancer's face is not meant to represent any particular person, it is a standard physiognomy for Shun'ei's bijinga in the 1790s — suggesting a sweet and easygoing personality.

In the summer of 1795, the three main theaters in Edo staged the enormously popular Kandehon chûshingura (Copybook of the treasury of the loyal retainers: 假名手本忠臣藏), or "Forty-seven Rônin." Shun'ei designed at least 19 prints of actors in productions at two of the theaters, the Miyako-za (都座) and Kiri-za (桐座), all with gray backgrounds in the manner of Toyokuni's earlier series Yakusha butai no sugata-e (see Toyokuni I). Shun'ei's chûshingura series is highly regarded, and among its designs are some of his finest actor portraits in full-length format. The print below right, published by Iwatoya Kisaburô (Eirindô), portrays Nakamura Noshio II (中村野塩) as Tonase (戸無瀬) in the bridal journey scene from Act 8 of Kandehon chûshingura at the Miyako-za in 4/1795. She wears a cloth headdress called a tsunokakushi ("horn concealer: 角隠し) to protect her hair from the dusty roads during travel. The odd literal meaning is a reference to the "horns of jealousy" that were meant to be hidden by the tsunokakushi, and as such symbolized a bride's resolve to abandon her self-interest in becoming a gentle and obedient wife. Tonase, however, is not the bride, but the step-mother. A determined woman, she wears two swords as the the wife of a samurai (Kakogawa Honzô) as she accompanies her step-daughter Konami (who also wears a tsunokakushi in some productions of the play) to marry her sweetheart Ôboshi Rikiya. The women travel along the famous Tôkaidô Road and, in the play, do so in a dance scene during the michiyuki ("road going": 道行). Tonase's expressive face brings a notable charm to the design, while her curving, slightly off-center figure suggests movement toward the left of the pictorial space. In prints shuch as this Tonase portrait, Shun'ei also produced a very similar (although half-length) portrait of Noshio II for this same moment in the play. The actor Nakamura Noshio II (1759-1800) was a highly skilled waka-onnagata (specialist in young maiden or princess roles: 若女方) who had a thriving career in Kamigata (Osaka-Kyoto) before relocating to Edo where he had a triumphant final five years (fall 1794 to fall 1799). Sadly, he died fairly young and could not realize his full promise. Even so, in 1799 he was called Edo kusshi no waka-onnagata ("the leading waka-onnagata in Edo").

Shunei shishi-mai Shunei tonase
Shun'ei: shishi-mai (Lion dance), c. 1792-94
Series: Oshi-e-gata (おし絵形)
Shun'ei: Nakamura Noshio II as Tonase, 4/1795
Play: Kandehon chûshingura (假名手本忠臣藏)

By the 1790s, Shun'ei's standard hosoban designs, with some exceptions, were often appealing but not always memorable. He drafted his figures in a somewhat "soft" manner, without the compelling power of his teacher Katsukawa Shunshô or his contemporary Katsukawa Shunkô at his best. Still, Shun'ei's average hosoban designs were not to be ignored, as they continued to chronicle the staging and leading actors of the day in an economical and effective manner. The two sheets shown below, published by Harimaya Shinshichi, were possibly the right and left sheets of a triptych. They portray Ichikawa Monnosuke II, on the left, as the aforementioned Soga no Gorô Tokimune and, on the right, Sawamura Sôjûrô III as Soga no Jûrô Sukenari in the premiere staging of Shunshoku Edo-e Soga (Spring-colored Soga Edo-pictures: 春色江戸絵曽我) at the Ichimura-za in 1/1791. As discussed earlier for the mica ôkubi-e depicting Kudô no Suketsune, here we again have one of the many Soga monogatari (Tales about the Soga: 曾我物語) featuring the two brothers avenging their father's murder. It is difficult to determine exactly why the Soga brothers' tales were so popular in Edo, but during the century and a half of New Year performances, more than 400 plays on the Soga theme we rewritten and performed, varying somewhat in their subplots, but essentially remaining unchanged. Among the reliable indicators of the roles over the course of different plays were the patterns of clothing worn by the actors. Soga no Jürö Sukenari, the elder brother, was cast as a gentle and handsome youth whose emblem was the chidori (plover: 千鳥) in flight. Soga no Gorö Tokimune, the younger brother, was cast as a headstrong and violent youth whose emblem was the chô (butterfly: 蝶).

Shunei xxxxxxx
Shun'ei: Shunshoku Edo-e Soga (Spring-colored Soga Edo-pictures: 春色江戸絵曽我), 1/1791
(L) Ichikawa Monnosuke II as Soga no Gorô Tokimune; (R) Sawamura Sôjûrô III as Soga no Jûrô Sukenari

Ukiyo-e prints, with rare exceptions, did not reveal the sadder aspects of the lives of indentured courtesans and prostitutes. Publishers of woodblock prints were, after all, in the business of advertising the pleasures of the "floating world." To judge from the glorious golden-age "portraits" of the yûjo, (pleasure women: 遊女) in the prints of the 1780s-90s, one would think all was glamour and fame. However, the same subjects found in paintings were occasionally more truthful about the emotional toll on women bound under contract in sexual servitude. Contracts in the licensed quarters often lasted 10 years, whereupon the women were finally released, typically at the age of 26 or 27. Presumably, as most ukiyo-e paintings were done on commission, the wealthy patrons of the painters were more open to the unvarnished facts, or in some cases might have requested that they be acknowledged on the paintings.

Shunei yujo paintingShun'ei's paintings, of which only about a dozen are known, display a considerable talent. In his bijinga, one finds an interest in the psychological and emotional states of women. A painting from the 1790s portrays a young courtesan reading a letter. She is, it would seem, distraught at its contents. A poem by the important scholar of kangaku (Chinese learning: 漢学), writer of gesaku (popular playful fiction: 戯作), poet, and shogunal retainer Ôta Nanpô (太田南畝 1849-1823) is inscribed above: Yûkun gochô kaku / kukai jûnen ryû / nijûshichi meimu / aa shinkirô (A courtesan, twenty-seven years old, / laments the ten years spent on a bitter ocean. / Looking back / her life appears a mirage / now she is leaving the quarter). [trans. Art Gallery New South Wales] Alternatively, a slightly different emphasis yields the following: "Courtesans of the Five Streets of the quarter / ten years adrift on an ocean of troubles / released at twenty-seven with misguided dreams / Ah! This bitter mirage of the brothels." [Trans. Tim Clark] The sadness made explicit not only by the poem but also by the despairing expression and posture of the yûjo places this work among the finest paintings of its type during the last decade of the eighteenth century.

Another genre at which Shun'ei excelled was the sumô-e (wrestler print: 相撲絵). Although sumô has roots as far back as the Yayoi period (300 BCE–300 CE), professional sumô (ôzumô: 大相撲) or sumô as a sporting occupation, developed in the Edo period, from which modern-day sumô takes most of its rules and rituals. The foremost masters of sumô-e during the 1780s and 1790s were Katsukawa Shunshô, along with his pupils Shunkô and Shun'ei. The period 1781-94 is considered the first "golden age" of sumô when the sport rivaled kabuki in popularity and created a large demand for sumô-e. From around 1782, Shunshô and Shunkô began producing sumô-e in large enough numbers that they were able to establish a standard mode of pictorialization for the sport and its heroes, which then served as the basic visual vocabulary in sumô-e compositions. Earlier specimens in single-sheet format are known, of course, including designs by Hishikawa Moronobu in 1685, Ishikawa Toyonobu in 1758, Komatsuken Shoshoken (Shakeiko) in 1765, Torii Kiyotsune in 1770, Ippitsusai Bunchô in 1770, and Isoda Koryûsai in 1770. In the 1790s, other master artists designed a few sumô-e, such as Katsushika Hokusai (using his Katsukawa name, Shunrô) until abandoning the theme in 1795, and Utagawa Toyokuni I. Katsukawa Shuntei (a pupil of Shun'ei) began producing sumô-e around 1807, sometimes adapting original blocks first used for some of Shun'ei's prints. Starting around 1813, Utagawa Kunisada I introduced his first sumô-e and eventually took over as the preeminent designer of rikishi (sumô wrestlers: 力士).

Shun'ei designed more than 200 sumô-e. From around 11/1788, he began to produce wrestler prints in increasingly large numbers, with a few brief downtimes, until about 1799, a year in which he designed at least 25 prints. In late 1794, Shun'ei was the only active designer of sumô-e, aside from occasional contributions by a few other artists, notable among them Tôshûsai Sharaku's triptych of the six-year-old wonder-boy wrestler named Daidôzan Bungorô in 11/1794. From 1800 to 10/1803, Shun'ei temporarily ceased making sumô-e, for undocumented reasons, but possibly due to deciding to wait for new talent to arrive in the world of sumô before making additional designs. He also, in 1803, introduced a theme of rikishi relaxing in private life, including dancing in the Yoshiwara pleasure quarters! After another hiatus, he returned to fight-scene sumô-e in 1807, and in 1810 he produced an excellent series with rikishi wearing kimono outside the ring, a theme he had used in the 1790s (see below left). Shun'ei would continue to design sumô-e until his death in 1819.

The sumô-e below left, published circa 1792-93 by Tsutaya Jûsaburô, portrays the young wrestler Kurogumo Otozô (黒雲音ぞ) and the waitress Okita of the Naniwa-ya Teahouse (難波屋の店先). Okita's paper lantern is decorated with a vine-leaf associated with the Naniwa-ya which was located near the Zuijin Gate on the east side of the Asakusa-jinja (Asakusa Temple: 浅草神社) in Edo. Okita was the most frequently depicted teahouse beauty of the day, notably in the prints of Kitagawa Utamaro. The conceit here, of course, is the striking disparity between the hulking, grimacing Kurogumo and the charming, 15-year-old Okita. The poem by Engi Kanenari reads: Sajiki yori / ame arare zo to / hana furite / hiiki mo tsuyoku / miyuru Kurogumo ("Flowers shower like / rain and hail / from the gallery: / Kurogumo looks as strong / as his supporters." Despite the realism invested by Shun'ei in this portrait, it is very unlikely that Okita ever met Kurogumo. Such designs played upon the fashion and fantasies of the day when rikishi were considered heartthrobs by many women.

Shun'ei's sumô-e below right was published by Nishimura Yohachi (Eijûdô) in 1810. It portrays the wrestler Kagami-iwa Hamanosuke (鏡石浜之助) in kimono outside the sumô ring. The massive bulk of Kagami-iwa's form fills the pictorial space and expresses formidable strength and confidence. It is considered by some to be the finest portrait in the series. © 2020 by John Fiorillo

Shunei Kurogumo and Okita Shunei Kagami-iwa
Shun'ei: Kurogumo Otozô & Naniwa Okita, c. 1792-93 Shun'ei: Kagami-iwa Hamanosuke, 1810


  • Bickford, Lawrence: Sumo and the Woodblock Print Masters. Tokyo & New York: Kodansha, 1994.
  • Clark, Timothy and Ueda, Osamu: The Actor's Image. Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 1994, pp. 25, 328-357, 456-468.
  • Clark, Timothy: Ukiyo-e Paintings in the British Museum. London: British Museum Press, 1992, pp. 16-17, 28, 115.
  • Keyes, Roger: Japanese Woodblock Prints: A Catalogue of the Mary A. Ainsworth Collection. Oberlin: Allen Memorial Art Museum, 1984, pp. 38-41, 64-65.
  • Keyes, Roger: "Plovers and butterflies: The Soga Brothers in Japanese prints," in: Andon no. 5. Leiden: Society for Japanese Arts, 1982, pp. 12-17.
  • Smith, Henry: "Actor Prints: Shunshô, Bunchô, and the Katsukawa School," in: The Actor's Image, Ueda & Clark, 1995, pp. 20-22.
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