Shôkôsai Hanbei (松好半兵衛) was a pupil of Ryûkôsai Jokei (active c. 1776-1809), the "founder" of the Osaka school of mature yakusha-e (actor portraits: xxxx). Shōkōsai’s earliest confirmed single-sheet hosoban yakusha-e is a diptych from 5/1795. He discovered his own manner of rendering likenesses around 1800—realistic, but occasionally less caustic than Ryūkōsai’s nigao-e (likeness pictures: 似顔絵).
Shôkôsai's biography is unknown but for a few sketchy details. His actor portraiture evolved from the foundation provided by Ryûkôsai's nigao-e. His earliest confirmed print appears to date from 5/1795, although an unsigned portrait dated 4/1794 has been attributed to him. He may have designed the earliest single-sheet chûban-format prints in Osaka, publishing two such works in 9/1799. Shôkôsai also designed the first color-printed ehon (picture book: 絵本) of actors in Osaka; see double-page illustration below). Another of his admired illustrated books is the Ehon santô yakusha masukagami (Picture book: A brilliant mirror of actors in the three cities), published in 1806. Active in another area of ukiyo-e production, Shôkôsai illustrated at least eight e-iri nehon (kabuki playbooks: 絵入根本) between 1801 and 1809, establishing an Osaka genre that lasted until the 1860s. These were illustrated kabuki playbooks or summary editions, ranging from prose adaptations of plays to relatively accurate stage dialogs. Shôkôsai's legacy also includes his teaching Shunkôsai Hokushû (active c. 1806-1832), arguably the most significant master in the next generation of Osaka artists.
The styles of Ryûkôsai and Shôkôsai were similar. Both placed their figures against plain grounds or simplified landscapes that were influenced by paintings from the Kanô and Shijô schools. Both developed individuated physiognomies, stylized but consistently drawn and recognizable portraits of popular actors. Shôkôsai was perhaps a bit more angular in his drawing of the face. The most obvious difference between master and pupil lay in Shôkôsai's more wide-ranging compositional choices. While Ryûkôsai worked almost exclusively with full-length-figure hosoban compositions in his single-sheet prints (some of his paintings do, however, include ôkubi-e ("large-head" or bust portraits: 大首絵), Shôkôsai worked in full-length figure, half-length, and bust portrait single-sheet hosoban and chûban. Shôkôsai's ôkubi-e were particularly innovative for the Kamigata region and probably were important to the development of the later and better known bust portraits in the ôban-format during the second and third periods of Osaka printmaking.
Shōkōsai’s ehon represent a vital aspect of his oeuvre. He designed the first full-color illustrated actor book in Osaka, the two-volume Ehon futaba no aoi (Seed-leaves of the hollyhock: 絵本二葉葵) published by Shioya Chōbei in 1798 (size when closed: 254 x 170 mm). Altogether, there are ten double-page and five single-page full-length portraits of 40 actors, including two from Edo (Sawamura Sojūrō III and Iwai Hanshirō IV), performing in plays between 1793 and 1798. This ehon was so popular that it was reprinted until the early twentieth century. In the selection immediately above, from an early edition, Shôkôsai used a double-page spread to portray a child actor on the right along with Ichikawa Danzō IV (standing) and Yoshizawa Iroha I (sitting).
The print illustrated above is a rare example of a surimono (privately issued print: 摺物) from the early period of Osaka printmaking and the only one known by Shôkôsai. Dated circa late 1790s, its proportions (200 x 282 mm) and horizontal orientation shelter it somewhat from the direct influence of the Katsukawa vertical hosoban style and even from that of Ryûkôsai, which lends this particular surimono the stamp of originality. Shôkôsai depicted the actors Arashi Sangorô II (1732-1803) on the right and Yoshizawa Iroha I (later called Ayame V; 1754-1810) on the left in an unidentified play. Both actors were highly ranked and widely popular among theater fans. They are at Miho Bay with Mt. Fuji in the distance, where they are engaged in a dance interlude (shosagoto: 所作事). The occasion for this surimono is unknown — perhaps it was commissioned by fans of the actors. Another possibility is that it was commissioned for the retirement of Sangorô II, which took place in 1797. The first poem speaks of the morning mist at Miho, the second of a lover waiting for a companion, and the third of a sad parting between lovers at dawn. The delicacy of the printing and the full-color rendering of the actors contrast strongly with the lightly printed background, a precursor to later dramatic treatments of heavily printed ukiyo-e style figures set against more impressionistic, Shijô-inspired backgrounds. Shôkôsai was an experimenter in compositional forms and printing styles that set the stage for later Osaka artists.
Once Shôkôsai began producing his half-length or ôkubi-e portraits, a modified style emerged that was slightly more curvilinear and confident in rendering the nigao. On the example shown here (see image at right), a hosoban print published by Shichô-ban 塩長板 (Shioya Chôbei), the signature reads "Konan Shôkôsai" (江南松好齋). It portrays Arashi Kichisaburō II as Tsukushi Gonroku (筑紫権六) in Keisei hako denju (Instruction in a courtesan’s secrets: けいせい筥伝授) at the Kado Theater, Osaka in 1/1804. The angular face is still used, but the contoursarea beginning to soften and there is greater flow overall to the actor's form.
Overall, Shôkôsai produced portraits in the Ryûkôsai manner with convincing likenesses in paintings, prints, and ehon, and to his own credit, introduced a greater range of formats in Kamigata ukiyo-e. He was a singular transitional figure between the seminal oeuvre of Ryûkôsai and the artists of the next generation of print designers, most notably Shôkôsai's pupil Hokushû Shôkôsai. © 1999-2020 by John Fiorillo
- Fiorillo, John: "A rare surimono by Shôkôsai and its place among early Osaka actor portraits," in: Andon, no. 57, 1997, pp. 21-37.
- Gerstle, C.A.: Kabuki Heroes on the Osaka Stage, 1780-1830. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2005.
- Keyes, Roger and Mizushima, Keiko: The Theatrical World of Osaka Prints. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1973.
- Lühl, H.: Schätze der Kamigata: Japanische Farbenholzschnitte aus Osaka, 1780-1880 (Treasures of Osaka: Japanese Color Prints from Osaka, 1780-1880). Musee National d'Histoire et d'Art Luxembourg, 2013.