Ryûkôsai Jokei (琉光齋女圭 act. c. 1776–1809) is considered the progenitor of the actor-portrait in Kamigata in its mature form. His surname was Taga (多賀) and alternate personal name Jihei (慈平). He studied with the poet, calligrapher, and painter Shitomi Kangetsu (1747–97), a former pupil of the eminent Osaka-based painter and book illustrator Tsukioka Settei (月岡雪鼎 1710–86). However, by the late 1770s, Ryûkôsai had mostly set aside the academic routine he had learned from Kangetsu, becoming instead a devotee of kabuki actor portraiture in the ukiyo-e manner.
Ryûkôsai’s first known work is an illustration in the poetry anthology Kyôka narabi no oka (Playful verses arranged on rising ground: 狂歌ならびの岡) of 1776 to which other artists also contributed, including his teacher Kangetsu. Ryûkôsai developed a distinct style while designing his early illustrated books (ehon: 絵本), the first appearing in 1784 as Yakusha mono iwai (A celebration of actors: 旦生言語備) in two volumes containing 50 monochrome full-length figures.
Another important work is the three-volume Ehon niwa tazumi (Picture book — flowering rainwater: 画本行潦) from 1790, featuring seventy double-page illustrations of actors in performance, including stage scenery. Published in the three major cities (Osaka, Kyoto, Edo), Ehon niwa tazumi helped further establish the Ryûkôsai style of nigao-e ("likeness pictures" 似顔絵) and, by extending its reach to Edo, might have influenced the genius of Edo actor prints (yakusha-e: 役者絵), Sharaku Tôshûsai (東洲斎写楽 act. 1794–95), as well as Katsukawa Shunei (勝川春英 1762–1819).
Nigao-e produced by Ryûkôsai had their impetus partly in Edo sources, most notably in the first full-color actor-portrait ehon originating in Edo — Ehon butai ôgi (Picture book of stage fans: 絵本舞台扇) from 1770, published by Kariganeya Ihei (雁金屋伊兵衛). This compilation featured 106 yakusha-e, fifty-seven by Ippitsusai Bunchô (一筆齋文調 act. 1767–1801) and forty-nine by Katsukawa Shunshô (勝川春章 1726–93). The Kyoto publisher Kikuya Yasubei (菊屋安兵衛) purchased the woodblocks from Karigane and in 1778 issued an abridged and edited version titled Ehon zoku butai ôgi (Sequel to the picture book of stage fans: 絵本続舞台). Ryûkôsai surely knew both the original Edo and modified Osaka edition and would have been influenced by them.
Even so, Ryûkôsai produced his own manual for designing actor prints, an untitled and undated manuscript known as Ryûkôsai ikô (Posthumous manuscript by Ryûkôsai: 流光斎遺稿). This treatise on drawing figures (c. 1793–1803) contains nineteen double-page hand-drawn images, possibly compiled by Ryûkôsai himself. He urged the artist to "depend on his heart when making the initial sketch," which was the way toward realistic portraits. Understanding what the actor in role felt at the moment chosen for depiction would lead to a face "well portrayed."
A fine book from the end of Ryûkôsai's most productive period is Ehon hana ayame (Picture book of irises: 絵本花菖蒲) from 1794, with thirty-nine pairs of actors in monochrome. The style is a match with his’s single-sheet prints (ichimai-e: 一枚絵) issued at that time, here with an emphasis on the interactions between the performers.
Although Ryûkôsai's active period spanned about 30 years, his surviving ichimai-e are few, numbering only forty-seven known designs; sixteen are signed, the remaining thirty-one attributed. All but two are in a format called hosoban (細判 approx. 330 x 150 mm). Most were issued in a two-year period: six in 1792 and twenty-six in 1793. Typical of these productions is the portrait shown on the left depicting Asao Tamejûrô I (浅尾為十郎) in an unidentified role, c. 1792.
A few of Ryûkôsai's scroll paintings (kakejiku 掛軸) and folding fans (ôgi 扇) are known. Contemporary evidence in an undated manuscript (Osaka dachin uma, 大坂駄珍馬 circa 1783, National Diet Library, Japan) declares that Ryûkôsai's actor likenesses painted on fans were huge hits around the city of Osaka and its environs. More numerous among the surviving works are his small painted actor portraits compiled in albums.
Ryûkôsai's impact on ukiyo-e prints and painting in Kamigata, notably his trenchant style of actor portraiture, was groundbreaking. His’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.
Pupils of Ryûkôsai
Despite his influence, Ryûkôsai appears to have had few direct students. Two followers were of minor importance:
Rankôsai (蘭好齋), known for only a single hosoban triptych in 1811
Hotta Yukinaga 掘田行長 (also known as Renzan 連山 act. c. 1804 and possibly later)
Only two students were accomplished print artists:
Yûrakusai Nagahide (有樂齋長秀 act. c. 1799–1842)
Shôkôsai Hanbei (松好半兵衛 act. c. 1795–1809).
It was through these last two disciples that the Ryûkôsai legacy would be assured.
For more information about Ryûkôsai, see John Fiorillo's web page: