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Torii Kiyonobu I (一代目 鳥居清信)


Kiyonobu I spear danceTorii Kiyonobu I (鳥居清信 c. 1664-1729), whose given name was Shôbei (庄兵衛), was a seminal print designer, book illustrator, and painter who was active at a critical juncture in the development of ukiyo-e printmaking. Kiyonobu's father was Torii Kiyomoto (鳥居清元 1645–1702), a painter of kabuki signboards and an Osaka-based kabuki actor performing as an onnagata (female roles: 女方) specialist under the name Torii Shôshichi. There was also another early Torii artist connected to Kiyonobu named Kiyotaka (鳥居清高) who might have been part of a separate branch of the Torii lineage working in Edo, although this has not been confirmed. Kiyotaka is not listed in the unpublished and much later family genealogical record known as Torii ga keifu kô circa 1875, but he is mentioned in the contemporaneous commentary Fûryû kagami ga ike of 1709 signed "Baigin" (possibly an alias of the illustrator, Okumura Masunobu?) as having taught Shôbei Kiyonobu. Signed art by either Kiyomoto or Kiyotaka seems not to have survived, although some unsigned early Torii-school works may one day be firmly attributable to them.

Kiyonobu I, as one of the founders of the Torii school of painting and print design, was very popular and became its unquestioned first-generation titular leader. The Fûryû kagami ga ike commentary from 1709 states that Kiyonobu's paintings were placed in shrines as substitutes for ema (votive pictures: 絵馬) and that he "captured the [kabuki] character's emotions perfectly. Everyone who visited the shrine was impressed by his pictures and crowds were always to be seen standing around in admiration." [see Link 1977 ref. below, p. 22] In so doing, Kiyonobu seems to have adapted Hishikawa Moronobu's style of figure drawing and composition by injecting his own manner of vitality. He must have known, as well, the less sophisticated works of Yoshida Hanbei (吉田半兵衛), who was active in Kamigata circa 1664 to 1689, and the imposing Sugimura Jihei (杉村治平), busy in in Edo circa 1681 to 1703. Assimilating these and perhaps other influences, Kiyonobu became particularly adept at rendering volume and movement, while his use of black line was brilliant in its sweeping calligraphic expressiveness. His works include both bold and emphatic images of actors in aragoto ("rough business": 荒事) roles, a specialty of Ichikawa and some other Edo-based actors, as well as more subdued renderings of courtesans and actors (especially from the Kyoto and Osaka stages). In terms of Kiyonobu's surviving works, whether signed or attributed, it is the gentler style of theatrical portrayal that outnumbers the aggressively rendered actor print. It is not known whether this would hold true for his e-kanban (painted kabuki "picture signboards": 絵看板), as none are extant.

Kiyonobu I armor tuggingThe hand-colored print shown above, published by Igaya Kan'emon (伊賀屋勘右衛門 Bunkidô 文亀堂), depicts the Kyoto-born Tsutsui Kichijûrô (筒井吉十郎 died 1727) performing an energetic spear dance in 11/1704. Kiyonobu's design was printed in a large size (vertical ô-ôban, 535 x 315 mm), formed by combining two sheets; the horizontal join can be seen toward the bottom of the print running through the square red seal at the lower left. Although the work is unsigned, the animated portrayal and quality of modulated lines strongly support an attribution to Kiyonobu I. The first three characters at the lower left (near the actor's name) indicate this was a Kyô kudari ("going down from Kyoto": 京下り). Kudari yakusha (going-down actors: 下り役者) traveled from Kamigata (Osaka-Kyoto region) to perform in Edo theaters, often during November, which was the hiring and season-opening period. The term was derived from the sentiment that leaving the capital (Kyoto) for any other locale was a "descent." Kudari yakusha were given special billing in the theater programs and on billboards for the annual kaomise ("face-showing" or introduction of actors: 顔見世). Tsutsui Kichijûrô spent much of his career as a highly regarded waka-onnagata (actor specializing in young maiden roles: 若女方). At the start of 1725, he switched to performing as a tachiyaku (leading man: 立役), doing so for a little longer than two years until his death in 3/1727.

A rare kakemono-e (hanging scroll painting: 掛物絵) by Kiyonobu I from around the 1720s is shown on the left. Measuring 801 x 343 mm, it portrays a famous aragoto theatrical episode: the kusazuri-biki no ba (armor-pulling scene: 草摺引の場) from a Soga monogatari (Tale of the Soga Brothers: 曾我物語) play, one of the most enduring franchises in all of kabuki history. The origin of the epic tale, which takes place in 1193 and was based on a true historical incident, cannot be traced to a single author; rather, like most historical chronicles of military valor or revenge, it is the result of conflated versions passed down through writings, oral tradition, ballad dramas, and theatrical performances. The story was first mentioned in the Azuma kagami (Mirror of the East: 吾妻鏡/東鑑) compiled after 1266; texts known by the name "Soga monogatari" came sometime afterwards, along with kôwaka-mai (recitative dances: 幸若舞). The first fully staged versions appear to date from the early fifteenth-century theater. Subsequent puppet and kabuki plays have thrived ever since their initial productions. The vendetta heralds the brothers Soga no Jûrô Sukenari (曾我の十郎祐成) and Soga no Gorô Tokimune (曾我の五郎時致), who sought to avenge their father's murder by Kudô no Suketsune (工藤祐経) during a dispute over land-rights. In kabuki, Soga mono were and still are traditionally staged at the New Year. The scene shown in Kiyonobu's painting is a highlight of many Soga mono, featuring the strongman Kobayashi Asahina (小林朝比奈) tugging at the tassets (overlapping jointed metal splints) of Gorô's armor to prevent the young hothead from rushing recklessly into Suketsune's compound. Gorô was a role strongly associated with the Ichikawa Danjûrô acting lineage, and most especially with Ichikawa Danjûrô I (市川團十郎 1660–1704), the creator of the aragoto style of acting. However, as there are no inscriptions or identifying mon (crests: 紋) in Kiyonobu's portrayal, and given that the physiognomies are not an actual "likenesses" (nigao: 似顔), no particular actor, play title, or production date can be identified.

Another large, hand-colored print (ô-ôban, 532 × 309 mm) by Kiyonobu I featuring an onnagata is his portrait of the Kyoto-born Sawamura Kodenji (澤村小傳次 born 1665 - died after c. 1706) as Tsuryu no Mae in the play Kantô koroku imayo sugata (Kantô Koroku's up-to-date figure: 關東小六今様姿) at the Nakamura Theater, Edo in 3/1698 (see image at right). Kodenji, identifiable by his crest of nine circles, had left Kamigata for Edo in the fall of 1694. He is shown performing a kyôran mono ("madness piece: 狂乱物) before the Tadasu Shrine while carrying a tree branch with poem slips attached, as if dancing at the Tanabata Festival. Kodenji was one of the finest onnagata during the Genroku period (元禄時代 1688-1704), specializing in nuregoto ("moist business" or love scenes: 濡れ事), so called because they supposedly brought the audience to tears. The most dedicated of onnagata were famous for maintaining onna-rashisa (female likeness or womanliness: 女らしさ) in private life. There is an anecdote that claims Kodenji, steadfast in onnagata mode, once traveled by kago ("vehicle basket" or palanquin: 駕籠) to visit the Fujidera temple in the Province of Kawachi. He was so fatigued upon arriving that he openly declared the difficult journey had brought on his menstruation(!). Kiyonobu's charming portrait displays his skill in rendering line, form, and movement in the billowing costume that Kodenji no-doubt actually used to great effect on the kabuki stage.

In 1687, when he was twenty-four, Kiyonobu accompanied his father to Edo, and by 1790-92 Kiyomoto is said to have begun the production of his painted kabuki picture signboards, thereby establishing a Torii-family monopoly with the main theaters in Edo. This was the official beginning of the Torii school of ukiyo-e painting and printmaking, which quickly led to its dominance during the first half of the eighteenth century. Kiyonobu I apparently completed his first work in printed images with the publication in 1693 of Kokon shibai iro kurabe hyakkunin isshu (Beauty contest of 100 actors of all ages: 古今四場居色競百人一首). The example shown below left portrays Katsuyama Minato I (勝山湊 also 勝山水戸 dates unknown), who first acted (it seems) in Edo in 1689 after leaving Kamigata (Osaka-Kyoto area) to perform as a waka-onnagata. He had a long career, with his last recorded performance taking place in 1735 when he his acting name had changed to Katsuyama Matagorô (勝山叉五郎). Single-sheet actor prints by Kiyonobu I followed at least as early as 1698, offering an innovative approach to yakusha-e (actor prints: 役者絵). Kiyonobu's design featured a more heroic portrayal of actors, called hyôtan ashi mimizu gaki ("wriggling worm drawing and gourd legs": 瓢箪足蚯蚓描), a term used by later critics to describe the musculature and explosive strength exemplified by the early Torii figure-drawing style.

The watershed year, however, was 1700, when Kiyonobu I produced the ehon (woodblock-printed "picture book": 絵本) titled [Fûryû ehon] Shibô byûbo (Elegant picture book: painted screens in all directions). This was the reading given in an 1810 gôkan (multi-volume illustrated novel: 合卷) called Ito-zakura honchô bunsui by the writer, poet, and artist Santô Kyôden (山東京伝 1761-1816). An alternate reading often seen in the literature discussing Kiyonobu I is Fûryû yomo byôbu. Kiyonobu's masterful book of kabuki actors established a dynamic and dramatic style of yakusha-e that would influence all other actor-print designers in Edo for decades. Hillier (see ref. below) concluded that Kiyonobu I more or less established the "canon for depicting the mie, those contrived poses that had been adopted and followed by stage idols, who froze into these mimetic attitudes and held them long enough to draw the applause of the informed and highly critical audiences." The example below right portrays the first actor in the great Ichikawa Danjûrô lineage, who lived from 1660 to 1704. He is considered the creator of the aragoto acting style, which became synonymous with the Ichikawa line of actors and was so ably represented by the Torii school of print designers and painters. The term is a contraction of aramushagoto ("wild warrior business": 荒武者事), which first appeared in writings about Danjûrô I. Aragoto movements might have had their origins in early religious rituals that included ara-mai ("wild dances": 荒舞) involving stamping and glaring amidst acrobatic dancing portraying violent warriors and deities (in part related to yamabushi or mountain ascetic 山伏 rituals).

Kiyonobu I kokon shibai Kiyonobu I furyu yomo
Kiyonobu I: Katsuyama Minato I (勝山湊), 1693
Page from Kokon shibai iro kurabe hyakkunin isshu
Illustrated woodblock-printed book (ehon)
Kiyonobu I: Ichikawa Danjûrô I (市川團十郎), 1700
Page from Fûryû ehon shihô byôbu
Illustrated woodblock-printed book (ehon)

The calligraphic, modulated lines found in Kiyonobu's onnagata portraits are also present in Kiyonobu's depiction of actors in heroic aragoto roles. Kiyonobu designed several prints of the actor Yamanaka Heikurô I (山中平九郎 1642-1724) in which we see the famed hyôtan ashi mimizu gaki ("gourd legs and wriggling worm drawing": 瓢箪脚蚯蚓描) mentioned earlier. In the view below left, circa 1705, the role and play were identified by Gunsaulus (see ref. below) as Nanahori Dojô in Kinhira rokujô-gayoi at the Nakamura Theater, 12/1700. A later date circa 1705 has been suggested by other authors. In the image below right, Heikurô performs the role of the Demoness of Himeji Castle in the play Taiheiki hime-ga-jô, circa 1705-1706. Both designs are in the smaller hosoban format, although the demoness image is noticeably trimmed vertically. The figures are essentially generic in their physiognomies and body-forms. Their bulging muscles and protruding eyes were essential graphic elements in the typology adopted by Kiyonobu I for his drawing of aragoto roles.

Kiyonobu I kokon shibai Kiyonobu I furyu yomo
Kiyonobu I: Yamanaka Heikurô I (山中平九郎)
Nanahori Dojô (?) in Kinhira rokujô-gayoi (?)
(292 x 152 mm), c. 1700-05
Kiyonobu I: Yamanaka Heikurô I (山中平九郎)
Demoness of Himeji Castle, Taiheiki hime-ga-jô
Hosoban (264 x 163 mm), c. 1705-06

No less important, in 1700 Kiyonobu produced his Keisei ehon (Picture-book of castle-topplers: 傾城絵本), published by Hangi-ya Shichirôbei at Izumi-chô in Edo. The colophon bears the signature "Japanese painter" [Wagako] Torii Shôbei Kiyonobu zu (和画工 鳥居庄兵衛清信圖). The compendium of 20 or more pleasure women proved to be equally compelling as a model for bijinga (pictures of beautiful women: 美人画) as Fûryû yomo byôbu had been for yakusha-e. Both books were characterized by rhythmic modulation of line and impressive descriptive power. In the images immediately below, the courtesan Kogenda is shown in sumizuri-e (monochrome carbon-black print: 墨摺絵) and hand-colored versions. The pigments used for the latter, which scientific analysis has shown includes malachite, indigo, and smalt, suggest they were added to the sumizuri-e in the early 1700s, thus during Kiyonobu's lifetime. Given the sophisticated application of colors, this sheet and 18 others from a rebound album at the MFA, Boston might have been produced on commission for a wealthy connoisseur.

Kiyonobu I kokon shibai
Kiyonobu I: The courtesan Kogenda (小源た)
from the illustrated book Keisei ehon, 1701
(272 x 187 mm)
Kiyonobu I: The courtesan Kogenda (小源た)
from the illustrated book Keisei ehon, 1701
Hand-painted ehon (270 x 180 mm)

One of the interesting comparisons one can make in assessing early ukiyo-e is to consider the difference between monochrome and hand-colored impressions of the same designs. In the works of Kiyonobu I, we occasionally have both types of prints, as indicated above and below. Images printed only with sumi (carbon black: 墨絵) offer a bold and expressive calligraphic line, and the "color" of deep black serves as an key design element. The image shown immediately below is typical of Kiyonaga's work at the start of the eighteenth century. A hand-colored version shown at the bottom of this page demonstrates the appealing decorative appearance of soft Genroku-period colors, which appear decidedly different from the opaque painterly colors used in the depiction of Kogendo shown above. Some would argue that the chromatic variant of the courtesans and client attenuates the impact of Kiyonobu's otherwise bold design.

Kiyonobu_two keisei and client sumizuri-e
Kiyonobu I: Two courtesans entertaining a client.
Sumizuri-e, c. 1703 (278 x 370 mm)

Kiyonobu_two keisei and client hand-colored
Kiyonobu I: Two courtesans entertaining a client.
Hand-colored sumizuri-e, c. 1703 (273 x 368 mm)

Spanning three decades, the oeuvre of Kiyonobu I included kabuki picture signboards, hanging-scroll paintings, ukiyo-e prints, woodblock-printed illustrated books, kabuki playbooks (eiri kyôgen-bon, 絵入狂言本)), illustrated playbills (ehon banzuke, picture-book theater programs: 絵本番付), and shunga (erotic "spring pictures": 春画). Early works were characterized by a bold use of line and form, while later works tended to become more graceful, a manner more in keeping with the subsequent cultural ethos of the late 1720s-1740s. © 2020 by John Fiorillo


  • Clark, Tim, et al.: The Dawn of the Floating World 1650-1765: Early Ukiyo-e Treasures from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. London: Royal Academy of Fine Arts, 2001, pp. 106-113, nos. 24-25.
  • Dunn, Charles and Torigoe, Bunzô: The Actors' Analects (Yakusha rongo). New York: Columbia University Press, 1969, pp. 188.
  • Gunsaulus, Helen: The Clarence Buckingham Collection of Japanese Prints (vol. I): The Primitives. Art Institute of Chicago, 1955, pp. 35, 39, nos. 5, 14.
  • Hillier, Jack: The Art of the Japanese Book. London: Sotheby's Publications, 1987, Vol. 1, pp. 100-111, 118-127, 133-143.
  • Jenkins, Donald: Ukyo-e Prints and Paintings - The Primitive Period, 1680-1745. Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 1971, pp. 54-62.
  • Li, Vivian (ed.): The Kimono in Print: 300 Years of Japanese Design. Leiden: Hotei Publishing, 2020, p. 116.
  • Link, Howard: The Theatrical Prints of the Torii Masters: A Selection of Seventeenth and Eighteenth-Century Ukiyo-e. Rutland, VT: Tuttle, 1977.
  • Link, Howard: Primitive Ukiyo-e from the James A. Michener Collection in the Honolulu Academy of Arts. Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1980, pp. 17-25.
  • Morse, Anne N. (ed.): Drama and Desire: Japanese Paintings from the Floating World, 1690-1850. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2006, pp. 66-69.
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