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Tôshûsai Sharaku (東洲齋写楽)


Tôshûsai Sharaku (東洲齋写楽), active c. 1794-95, was one of art history’s most fascinating and mysterious 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 certain 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 attributed to or 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 performances).

Kitao Shigemasa geisha fukugawa
Tôshûsai Sharaku: Arashi Ryûzô II (嵐龍蔵) as Ishibe Kinkichi (石部金吉)
Hana-ayame Bunroku Soga (花菖蒲文禄曽我)
"Blooming Iris, Soga of the Bunroku Era,") Miyako Theater, 5/1794
Woodblock print, ôban (380 x 250 mm)

Sharaku's Identity
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 actor in the troupe of the Lord of Awa.

Indeed, a actor named Saitô Jûrôbei is named in a later 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 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 Sharaku's 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 stylistically.

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).

Sharaku's Disappearance
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 "History of Floating World Prints" (Ukiyo-e ruikô: 浮世絵類考, original manuscript lost, surviving copy 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 widely popular, 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 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.

Tôshûsai Sharaku: Segawa Kikunojô III (瀬川菊之丞) as the Tsuma (wife) Oshizu (妻おしず)
Hana-ayame Bunroku Soga (花菖蒲文禄曽我)
"Blooming Iris, Soga of the Bunroku Era," Miyako Theater, 5/1794
Woodblock print, ôban (375 x 250 mm)

Sharaku's Artistic Style
In order to explain the startling impact of Sharaku's designs, we might attempt to surmise his achievements 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 being produced by 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 moods and desires as portrayed on the stage.

If we examine the illustration at the top of this page, we see the actor Arashi Ryûzô II (嵐龍蔵) as Ishibe Kinkichi (石部金吉) from the play "Blooming Iris, Soga of the Bunroku Era" (Hana-ayame Bunroku Soga: 花菖蒲文禄曽我) 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, and his crude demeanor and grimacing mouth seem to suggest something of his venal character. 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. Sharaku's artistic style was one in which true expressiveness was revealed by both the stage persona and the actor himself.

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" 見得 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 as if a true likeness (nigao, 似顔 or kaonise, 顔似せ) of the actor was reflected back at the observer. His mica-ground portraits served as images of a confluent physical and emotional reality to far greater degree than did the actor portraits of earlier ukiyo-e artists.

Sharaku's Onnagata
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": 女方 or 女形) and an undeniable corporeal reality of an older male. The juxtaposition of these two essential aspects in Sharaku's hands resulted in what are, in the opinion of many, the greatest actor portraits in ukiyo-e.

The illustration shown immediately above is a portrait of the supreme onnagata Segawa Kikunojô III (1751-1810) as the Tsuma (wife) Oshizu (妻おしず), spouse of a minor character named Tanabe Bunzô (田辺文蔵), also in "Blooming Iris, Soga of the Bunroku Era" (Hana-ayame Bunroku Soga: 花菖蒲文禄曽我) at the Miyako Theater, 5/1794 (discussed earlier). 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.

Toshusai Sharaku tsuneyo as osan
Tôshûsai Sharaku: Osagawa Tsuneyo II (小佐川常世の) as Ippei's older sister (ane) Osan (一平姉おさん)
Koi nyôbô somewake tazuna (恋女房染分手綱)
"The beloved wife's multicolored rope," Kawarazaki Theater, 5/1794
Woodblock print, ôban (trimmed; 368 x 242 mm), published by Tsutaya Jûzaburô

In the same month and year as the preceding two portraits, Sharaku depicted the actor Osagawa Tsuneyo II (小佐川常世の) as Ippei's older sister (ane) Osan (一平姉おさん) in the play "The beloved wife's multicolored rope" (Koi nyôbô somewake tazuna: 恋女房染分手綱) at the Kawarazaki Theater, Edo in 5/1794. In this remarkable likeness, Tsuneyo II (1753-1808) is shown in one of the many onnagata characters he performed during his career — the role-type (yakugara: 役柄) for which he was most admired. At his height of acclaim, Tsuneyo was ranked "Meritorious - superior - superior - excellent" (kô-jô-jô-kichi: 功上上吉) in Edo actor critiques (yakusha hyôbanki: 役者評判記). Sharaku's print captures brilliantly the male actor who has transformed himself into a female presence on stage.

In Sharaku's portraits we do not see an idealization of an actor's physicality, either to conform to the exalted status of particular superstars or to the female roles in which they perform. Underneath expressions of femininity and poise are the real-life, flesh-and-blood men. 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 generally popular. Today, however, these designs are the most sought after and widely admired among the masterpieces of ukiyo-e printmaking. © 2001-2021 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.
  • Sharaku. Ukiyo-e taikei (Great Collection of Prints from the Floating World — Sharaku: 浮世絵大系 写楽), vol. 7. Tokyo: Sueisha, 1975.
  • 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.
  • Tôbu Bijutsukan (Tôbu Museum of Art: 東武美術館), eds.: Dai-Sharaku-ten zuroku (Great Sharaku Exhibition Catalog: 大写楽展図録). Tokyo: NHK, 1995.
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