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VJP title
Utamaro print showing


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Ryûkôsai Jokei (流光齋如圭)


Ryûkôsai Jokei (流光齋如圭 act. c. 1776–1811) is acknowledged as the progenitor of the mature actor-portrait (yakusha-e) in Kamigata (Osaka-Kyoto region). He studied with the poet, calligrapher, and painter Shitomi Kangetsu (1747–1797), who in turn had been a pupil of the acclaimed Osaka-based painter and book illustrator Tsukioka Settei (1710–1786).

He was apparently a business owner who practiced printmaking as an amateur-professional. Working with several publishers, he provided illustrations for kyôka ("playful verse") books and also published a book of haiku poetry. By the late 1770s Ryûkôsai abandoned the academic style he had learned from Kangetsu, turning to actor portraiture in the ukiyo-e style.

Ryûkôsai's first known work is an illustration in the poetry anthology Kyôka narabi no oka (狂歌ならびの岡) of 1776 to which other artists also contributed, including Kangetsu. His first solo ehon (illustrated book) appeared in 1784 as Yakusha mono iwai (A celebration of actors, 旦生言語備) in two volumes with 50 monochrome full-length actor portraits identified by their haimyô (poetry names) or yagô (house or guild) names, and accompanied by haiku verses. Another important work is the three-volume Ehon niwa tazumi (Picture book — flowering rainwater, 画本行潦) from 1790, featuring 70 double-page illustrations of actors in performance, including stage scenery. This ehon is admired for its depiction of dramatic tension and movement on the kabuki stage, and for its realistic portrayal of onnagata (actors in female roles). Published in the three major cities (Osaka, Kyoto, Edo), it helped further establish the Ryûkôsai style of nigao-e ("likenesses") and, by extending its reach to Edo, might have influenced the enigmatic genius of Edo yakusha-e, Sharaku Tôshûsai (act. 1794–1795), as well as Katsukawa Shunei (1762–1819).

Ryûkôsai's surviving single-sheet prints seem to date almost entirely from 1791-93 (with at least one print from 1798), primarily dispersed sheets from triptychs in the hosoban format. These Osaka hosoban are considered the earliest woodblock-printed, full-color, single-sheet prints in Osaka. Ryûkôsai developed an arresting style of portraiture with clearly articulated physiognomy partly derived from the seminal portraits of the Edo artist Shunshô. Ryûkôsai's influence on future generations of Osaka print designers was significant and lingered for decades, even after the Utagawa-school (especially through Kunisada) began to dominate actor portraiture in Edo and introduce its stylistic approach in Osaka.

ShokosaiAnother excellent book from the end of Ryûkôsai's most productive period is Ehon hana ayame from 1794, with 39 pairs of actors in monochrome. A decade later, in 1803, he produced an unusual two-volume ehon titled Gekijô gashi with famous landscapes that were featured in kabuki plays, drawn in a style reminiscent of Maruyama-Shijô paintings and prints, all accompanied by poems. Curiously, in 1818–1819 the publisher Eiraku-ya Tôshirô in Nagoya reissued Gekijô gashi in two editions — an abbreviated version in pale colors with new kyôka titled Hyôsui kiga (Eccentric pictures of floating plants: 萍水奇画) from 1818, and the one-volume but more complete Ehon ryôhitsu (Picture book by two brushes, 絵本両筆), c. 1819, with stronger colors. In both of the later editions, the scenes retain Ryûkôsai's landscapes, but are modified with figures by the Edo master Katsushika Hokusai (葛飾北齋 1760-1849). The reissues might have been prompted by a friendship between Hokusai and Ryûkôsai that led to a sort of memorial publication, assuming Ryûkôsai died around 1818.

Ryûkôsai's active period spanned about 30 years, but his surviving single-sheet prints (ichimai-e) are few, numbering, so far, only 16 signed and 30 unsigned but attributed designs. His earliest ichimai-e is dated 11/1791, the last c. 1800. Many are known in only solitary impressions. All but two are in the hosoban format. Ryûkôsai apparently produced most or all of his hosoban as polyptychs while often signing only one of the sheets, thereby posing a challenge to today's art historians when they encounter unsigned sheets in the Ryûkôsai style.

Two fine examples of Ryûkôsai's mature portrait style are shown here. At the top right, Yoshizawa Iroha I is depicted as Ariwara no Narihira in 12/1791. On the left, Yamashita Kinsaku II is shown in the role of Kohagi in a performance from 1/1793.

Ryûkôsai also painted small actor portraits that were compiled in albums; these, too, are rare. The Osaka Museum of History owns an album of 36 painted half-length and full-length actor portraits called Rien shoga, with a postscript dated 1787 and preface dated 1788. A handscroll titled Kyôgen zukushi zukan (Illustrated scroll of collected plays: 狂言尽図巻) c. 1789–1801 in the Chiba City Museum of Art includes 33 full-length actors in performance.

Ryūkōsai startled the world of Osaka printmaking with his trenchant style of actor portraiture. In 1787–88, Matsumoto Hôji (松本奉時), identified as one of the most enthusiastic Osaka kabuki fans and connoisseurs of the time, praised Ryûkôsai’s actor portraits for "capturing their true essence." Ryûkôsai's aim was to depict character (persona) and the expression of emotion appropriate to the role and scene — a verisimilitude that was innovative in Kamigata.

Ryûkôsai had few students. His two most important followers were Yûrakusai Nagahide (有楽齋長秀 active c. 1799-1840s) and Shôkôsai Hanbei (c. 松好齋半兵衛 active c. 1795-1809). He also deserves credit for establishing what became, arguably, the most important lineage of print designers in Osaka: Ryûkôsai Jokei--> Shôkôsai Hanbei--> Shunkôsai Hokushû --> Shunkôsai Hokuei. © 2017-2019 by John Fiorillo


  • Gerstle, C. Andrew and Akiko, Yano: Ryûkôsai zuroku: Kamigata yakusha niagao-e no reimei (Ryûkôsai catalogue: The dawn of Osaka print actor likenesses: 流光斎図録  上方役者似顔絵の黎明). Nishimonjiya, Hyôhô: Mukugawa Joshi Daigaku Kansai Bunka Kenkyû Senta (Mukogawa Women's University Kansai Culture Research Center), 2009.
  • Keyes, Roger and Mizushima, Keiko: The Theatrical World of Osaka Prints. Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1973, pp. 46-47, 238.
  • Yano, Akiko, "Capturing the body: Ryûkôsai’s notes on 'realism' in representing actors on stage," in: Publishing the Stage: Print and Performance in Early Modern Japan. Keller Kimbrough and Satoko Shimazaki (eds.), conference proceedings, Boulder Books on Asian Studies no. 1, University of Colorado Center for Asian Studies, 2011, pp. 117 and 134.
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