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VJP title Utamaro print showing



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Utagawa Toyokuni (1769-1825)


Toyokuni 1 Toyokuni kanji Utagawa Toyokuni, a pupil of Utagawa Toyoharu (1735-1814), was a preeminent designer of actor prints from the mid 1790s until his death. Toyokuni's series of more than fifty designs, Yakusha butai no sugata-e ("Pictures of Actors on the Stage"), issued from 1794-96, was an important achievement in full-length actor portraiture, with the earliest examples just preceding the work of Sharaku (whom Toyokuni has so often been accused of imitating).

Although his bust and half-length actor portraits never matched the unique psychological power and expressiveness of Sharaku's, they were striking achievements in a distinctive, non-derivative style, capturing the essence of the kabuki theater and counted among the finest examples of actor likenesses in the late 1790s. Toyokuni's drawing style became the standard for nineteenth-century actor portraiture, whose principles were set down in his one-volume book Yakusha nigao haya-geiko ("Quick Instruction in the Drawing of Actor Likenesses") published in 1817. Toyokuni and his pupils, especially Kunisada and Kuniyoshi, dominated their field during the first sixty years of the nineteenth century.

Toyokuni's early portraits of beautiful women issued in the 1790s can also be counted among his better works. The illustration on the right is an example of Toyokuni's approach to the depiction of young beauties before he focused his career almost exclusively on actor portraits. Still in his early twenties, Toyokuni shows the influence of Utamaro, Katsukawa Shunchô, and Kiyonaga, although the physiognomies are his own. This sheet is the second from the right in a pentaptych offering a panoramic view of crowds of young men and women enjoying the activities near the Ryôgoku Bridge spanning the Sumida River in Edo. The kimono of the teahouse waitress on the left bears the mon ("crest") of the actor Sawamura Sôjûrô III (1753-1801), indicating that she was an avid fan of the actor. The print was published by Eijûdô (Nishimuraya Yohachi) in the 1790s, although recent scholarship suggests this impression is a Meiji-period printing from the original blocks. As such, it is apparently just as rare as impressions from the original edition of the 1790s.

Toyokuni OshunDenbei#1 The print on the left depicts the actors Ichikawa Yaozô (1772-1844) as Omuraya Denbei and Iwai Kumesaburô (1776-1847) as the courtesan Oshun in the play Keisei byôbu ura ("Courtesan: The Folding Screen and the Sea") given at the Nakamura Theater, Edo, in 7/1800. It bears the mark of the publisher Eijudô (Nishimuraya Yohachi) and the round kiwame ("approved") censor seal at the lower right. The scene comes from a play that was one of many dramatizations of the actual double suicide (shinjû) of Oshun and Denbei in 1703. Theatrical dramatizations of double suicides were enormously popular. When caught in desperate circumstances and unable to resolve the conflicts between personal feelings and family obligations caused by their ill-fated romances, a few couples chose to die for love.

The story involves the Kyoto merchant Denbei, who loves the courtesan Oshun of the Gion quarter. One night Denbei is forced to kill his rival in love, the evil samurai Kanzaemon, and then flee from the police. Oshun's family attempts to protect her from scandal and the certainty that she and Denbei will take their own lives to atone for their illicit love, but they cannot overcome the lovers' devotion to one another. The lovers finally escape along a road at night, and then commit double suicide.

Toyokuni used a conventional kabuki mie ("display") for his two actors, Yaozô standing as Kumesaburô sits in front. Kumesaburô holds an exceptionally long pipe and touches her kimono collar with an elegantly feminine gesture. Yaozô's agitation over their plight is revealed in his expression (and perhaps even in the unusually rigid and stylized drawing of the scarf tied round his neck). The figures are placed against a gray background, one of the common features of Toyokuni's double full-length portraits of this period. Although the colors are somewhat faded, there is enough remaining of the fugitive orange, yellow, and purple to provide some idea of the original palette. This sensitive double portrait illustrates Toyokuni at his best as ukiyo-e entered the nineteenth century. © 1999-2014 by John Fiorillo


  • Fiorillo, John: "Tragedy and laughter in the floating world: Shinjû in the works of Utamaro and Kyôden," in: Andon, 1996, no. 54, pp. 3-23.
  • Heine, S.: "Tragedy and salvation in the floating world: Chikamatsu's double suicide drama as millenarian discourse," in: The Journal of Asian Studies, vol. 53/2, 1994, pp. 367-93.
  • Hempel, Rose: Holzschnittkunst Japans. Stuttgart: Besler Verlag, 1963, pp. 175, 178, and 182, pl. 76. Ihara, T. (Ed.): Kabuki Nenpyô. Tokyo: Vol. 5, 1960, pp. 285-86.
  • Keyes, Roger: "The Actors on Stage Series," in: Japanese Woodblock Prints: A Catalogue of the Mary A. Ainsworth Collection. Oberlin: Allen Memorial Art Museum, 1984, p. 40.
  • Shively, Donald: The Love Suicide at Amijima: A Study of a Japanese Domestic Tragedy by Chikamatsu Monzaemon. Cambridge: Harvard-Yenching Institute & Oxford University Press, 1953.
  • Succo, Frederick: Utagawa Toyokuni und Seine Zeit. Munich: Piper & Co., 1924.
  • Thornhill, A.: "Restraint and Emotion in 'The Love Suicides at Sonezaki', in: An Interpretive Guide to Bunraku. (Pringle, P., Ed.). Honolulu: 1992.
  • Tinios, Ellis: "How to draw actor portraits: An introduction to Toyokuni's Yakusha nigao haya-geiko," in Andon, Vol. 8/4, 1988, no 32, pp. 168-174.
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