No theatrical prints tower over ukiyo-e history like those of the Edo artist Tôshûsai Sharaku, a man regarded since his belated "discovery" (by a German) 100 years ago as the unsurpassed genius of the actor print genre.
Before Sharaku (act. 1794-95), and indeed long after him, theatrical ukiyo-e portraiture meant depicting actors in an idealized manner, never admitting evidence of the aging process or hints of ugliness. This was especially true with respect to onnagata, the males who represent women on stage.
In Sharaku's legendary 140-print oeuvre (see Sharaku), however, this convention was jettisoned in favor of a far more realistic approach. Not only are actors, including onnagata, revealed to have unflattering physical features, but some even look frail and insecure as they struggle to fill their roles with energy and credibility.
It seems the public of his day rejected Sharaku's psychological probing and hard-nosed treatment of its idols, and his career was over in ten months. But no matter; posterity now considers him the first modern artist of Japan, his prints, hugely expensive, are coveted worldwide, and easily 140 tons of paper are expended each year merely on the enigma of his identity. (The signature may have been a nom de plume for any of several men, or even a collective.)
Sharing the glory
Alas, from now on Sharaku hagiographers may need to frequently use the asterisk on their keyboards. A strong counter claim exists to at least one of his credited innovations, the rendering of popular onnagata in a less than tactful way. (Picture, if you will, a beauty with narrow eyes, small mouth, thick neck, and an old man’s hands and face.) It seems that Sharaku was preceded in this form of truth-telling — in some cases by more than several years — by an Osaka artist named Ryûkô Jokei.
Ryûkôsai (act. 1777-1809), like many a Kamigata ukiyo-e figure, was a theater fan who happened to dabble in actor portraits when the spirit moved him. The record shows that as early as 1780 this highly sophisticated and talented amateur was filling Kabuki picture books and prints with the same kind of portraiture (of sometimes the very same actors) one associates with Sharaku.