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Utamaro print showing


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Utagawa Toyokuni I (歌川豊國)


Toyokuni 1st bijinUtagawa Toyokuni (歌川豊國), was born in Edo, the son of Kurahashi (倉橋) Gorobei, a carver of dolls and puppets (including kabuki figures). While a teenager, Toyokuni became a pupil of Utagawa Toyoharu (1735-1814). A decade later, he started his reign as the preeminent designer of yakusha-e (actor prints: 役者絵), which lasted from 1794 until well into the 1810s. In fact, Utagawa-style yakusha-e would dominate the field of actor prints for more than 70 years in the works of Toyokuni I, Kunisada, Kuniyoshi, and others.

Early in his career, Toyokuni also produced some fine bijinga (pictures of beautiful women: 美人画). Those issued in the 1790s can be counted among his best works. The image on the right, circa 1792-94, 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, the work shows the influence of Kitagawa Utamaro, Katsukawa Shunchô, and Torii Kiyonaga. Toyokuni's print portrays a very slender and impossibly tall young beauty holding an umbrella and a poem slip. She is a stand-in for the celebrated poet Ono no Komachi (小野小町), and more specifically, Amagoi Komachi (Komachi praying for rain: 雨乞い小町), one of seven plays known as Nana Komachi (Seven Komachi: 七小町) written in the 14th century by the originators of the drama, Kan'ami Kiyotsugu (観阿弥清次 1333–1384) and his son, Zeami Motokiyo (世阿弥元清 1363–1443). The ninth-century poet Komachi (c. 825–c. 900) was one of the Rokkasen (Six poetic immortals: 六歌仙). In the associated legend, Komachi ended a drought when summoned by the Emperor to provide a verse to bring forth rain. She composed the poem, lit incense to Ryû (竜 Dragon Deity), and recited her poem. She next tossed the written verses into a pond, which initiated a thunderous rainstorm lasting for three days. Her poem read: Kotowari ya / hi no moto nareba / teri mo sen / saritote wa mata / ama ga shita towa (Though it is true that Japan / lies under the sun / where its light afflicts us, / even so this land is also / below the rain: ことはりや/日のもとなれば/てりもせん/さりとては又/天が下とは). Toyokuni used a conventional mode for the portrayal of Komachi in mitate-e (analog pictures: 見立絵), dressing a young woman in contemporary clothing and having her carry a janome-gasa (snake's-eye umbrella: 蛇の目傘) as a reference to Amagoi Komachi. The connection is made explicit by the cartouche reading Tôsei yatsushi amagoi Komachi (A contemporary version of Komachi praying for rain: 当世やつし雨乞小町), with the term yatsushi (やつし or 侑) meaning, variously, "transformed," "imitated," and "fashionable," or in this context, reworking a classical story within a contemporary setting.

Toyokuni 1st monnosuke Toyokuni 1st Sojuro
Toyokuni I: Ichikawa Monnosuke II, 1794
Series: Yakusha butai no sugata-e
Toyokuni I: Sawamura Sôjûrô III, 1794
Series: Yakusha butai no sugata-e

Toyokuni's first series of actors comprises more than fifty designs. Yakusha butai no sugata-e (Pictures of actors on the stage: 役者舞台之姿絵), published by Izumiya Ichibei (Kansendô) in 1794-96, represents a significant achievement in full-length actor portraiture, with the earliest examples (the first was in 1/1794) preceding the work of Tôshûsai Sharaku (who began in 5/1794). This dating refutes the opinion of early critics who considered Toyokuni a mere plagiarist. Even Sharaku's hallowed dark-mica grounds (kuro-kira-e, black-mica prints: 黒雲母絵) were preceded by light-mica grounds (shiro-kira-e, white-mica prints: 白雲母絵) on at least two of Toyokuni prints, one in 1/1794 (Monnosuke II as Sôga no Jûrô at the Kawarazaki-za, 河原崎座) and the other in 3/1794 (Yaozô III as Hatsuhei in Hatsu akebono kaomise Sôga at the Miyako-za, 都座). If an earlier artist is to be identified as an important influence on Toyokuni for actor portraiture, it would be, arguably, Katsukawa Shunei (勝川春英 1762-1819); in fact, the influence was likely reciprocal after the publication of Toyokuni's Yakusha butai no sugata-e.

The two examples shown above are from 1794. On the left, Ichikawa Monnosuke II (市川門之助) [yagô or shop name Takinoya たきのや] performs the role of Soga no Jûrô (曽我十郎) in the premiere of Gohiiki no hana aikyô Soga (御曳花愛敬曽我) at the Kawarazaki-za (河原崎座). On the right, Sawamura Sôjûrô III (沢村宗十郎) [yagô or shop name Kinokuniya, きのくにや] plays Nagoya Sanza (名古屋三座) in Keisei sanbon karakasa (The courtesan and three umbrellas: けいせい三本傘) at the Miyako-za (都座). Both of these designs have a confident and crisp quality that is characteristic of Toyokuni's early full-length portraits. Notable, too, are the textured gray backgrounds, true of the entire series, which fill in the pictorial space without intrusive details and so enhance the focus on the actors.

Although Toyokuni's bust and half-length actor portraits never matched the unique psychological power in the oeuvre of Tôshûsai Sharaku, they were striking achievements in a distinctive style, capturing the essence of the actor on the kabuki stage and counted among the finest examples of actor likenesses in the mid-to-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: 役者似顔早稽古) published in 1817 (see text below). Toyokuni and his most important pupils, especially Kunisada I and Kuniyoshi, and their protégés dominated the field of yakusha-e during the first 70 years of the nineteenth century.

Toyokuni 1st nakazo Toyokuni 1st yonesaburo
Toyokuni I: Nakamura Nakazô II as Matsuômaru
Play: Sugawara denju tenarai kagami, 7/1796
Toyokuni I: Matsumoto Yonesaburô I
Play: Hinanomiya mutsuki no mitsubiki, 1797

The image above left portrays Nakamura Nakazô II (中村中蔵) as Matsuômaru (松王丸) in Sugawara denju tenarai kagami (Mirror of learning and transmitting Sugawara's secrets of calligraphy: 菅原伝授手習鑑) in 7/1796 at the Miyako-za (都座). Matsuômaru, his robe patterned with pine trees (one of his father's three favorite trees and the root of Matsuômaru's name), strikes a bold mie (climactic pose: 見得), captured brilliantly by Toyokuni. The portrait does not involve an exploration into the personality of the real-life actor, as Sharaku often succeeded in doing, but it does present with impressive vitality and clarity the art of performance on the kabuki stage. In a print published by Murata Jirôbei, Toyokuni portrayed the young actor Matsumoto Yonesaburô I (松本米三郎 1774-1805) as Tsukisayo (月さよ) in the play Hinanomiya mutsuki no mitsubiki, staged at the Kiri-za (桐座) in Edo, 1797. The red collector/dealer seal of Hayashi Tadamasa (林忠正 1853–1906) has been stamped below Toyokuni's signature. There is a captivating quality to these early ôkubi-e ("large-head pictures": 大首絵) by Toyokuni that represent the best of his yakusha-e (actor portraits: 役者絵) characterized by a style of nigao (facial likenesses: 似顔) that belongs to him alone. The promising young actor, who died before he could fully mature on stage, wears a kimono patterned with a hagoita (battledore: 羽子板) on the sleeve. The confident lines and pose were hallmarks of Toyokuni's style. As with the series Yakusha butai no sugata-e, the background is a textured gray, allowing the viewer to focus unimpeded on the actor and giving the portrait an expressive formality.

Toyokuni 1 yonesaburoAs the first decade of the nineteenth century wore on, Toyokuni's style for his bijinga took a decided turn toward heavier and more rigid faces and bodies. The facial typology that became so familiar in the works of his students (foremost among them Utagawa Kunisada I) can be found developing during the latter part of that decade. One example, shown on the right, depicted the high-ranking courtesan Aimi (会見) of the Maru-Ebiya (丸海老屋) brothel on parade in the Yoshiwara (葭原 then later 吉原), Edo's famous pleasure quarters. Aimi is accompanied by her kamuro (child assistants: 禿) Tsuruno (つるの) and Kameji (かめし) dressed in similar costume, although without the fierce green dragon on their obi (sash: 帯). The intense pink background is unusual, but it offers evidence of just how colorful some unfaded ukiyo-e prints were and also provides an idea about what attracted customers to these designs — beautiful women adorned in many-layered kimono with intricate patterns, a fashion statement if there ever was one.

Toyokuni's Yakusha nigao hayageiko (Quick lessons in drawing true likenesses of actors: 役者似顔早稽古), published by Tsuruya Kiemon (Senkakudô) in 1817, offers an instructional "how-to" primer on drawing actors in the Utagawa manner. The one-volume work presents compositional and drawing principles followed by 25 actor portraits, all but one set against hagoita (battledores: 羽子板). The practical guide includes specific instruction regarding the sequence of drawing faces, which was nose, mouth, eyes, eyebrows, and lines of the face. For example, Toyokuni considered the nose as the "center of the face" and so starting there would more likely lead to a naturally formed face. Similar advice can be found in the 1679 and 1701 (parts 1-2) Chinese Jieziyuan Huazhuan (Manual of the mustard seed garden: 芥子園畫傳), which was well known in Japan through original copies imported before 1700, but especially after a Japanese-language edition of the first part was published in 1748. Toyokuni added further advice, such as taking note of the most striking aspects of the face and then emphasizing them in the drawing, which would make the actor immediately recognizable. Beyond the nigao (likenesses: 似顔), Toyokuni also offered the volume's only instruction on full figures (see below), where two bodies are sketched in sumi (carbon black: 墨 or 墨) while the outlines of their clothing are indicated in red. All told, Yakusha nigao hayageiko provides a fascinating glimpse into the methodology of Utagawa-style yakusha-e production, an abbreviated guide that served as a bible for drawing actors whose principles were followed by scores of artists throughout much of the nineteenth century. © 1999-2020 by John Fiorillo

Toyokuni 1st nakazo
Toyokuni I: Yakusha nigao hayageiko (double-page spread), 1817


  • Fiorillo, John: "Refashioning the Legends of Komachi in 'Mitate-e'," in: Andon, no. 63; Leiden: Society for Japanese Arts, 1999, 17-30.
  • Gerstle, A. Andrew: "Analyzing the Outrageous: Takehara Shunchōsai's 'Shunga' Book Makura dôji nukisashi manben tamaguki (Pillow book for the young, 1776)," in: Japan Review, no. 26, 2013, pp. 185-186.
  • 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.
  • Succo, Frederick: Utagawa Toyokuni und Seine Zeit. Munich: Piper & Co., 1924.
  • 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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