Woodblock prints advertising scenes of kabuki performances (shibai-e) and featuring the Kabuki theater's dashing actors (yakusha-e) are the most common subjects in Japanese printmaking. Portraits of actors in their roles or as private individuals were in great demand among fans. Actors were - not unlike today - the stars of their time.
Entertainment and the Theater
The Kabuki theater combined dance, music, and spectacular fight scenes with a dramatic plot. It has provided the residents of major Japanese cities such as Edo (Tokyo) and Osaka with the most popular leisure activities during the Edo period - a place to see and be seen. Woodblock prints were sold as souvenirs in front of the theaters or distributed among the Kabuki theater’s followers and supporters. For actor prints from Osaka see our special categorie Osaka prints.
Promotion through woodblock prints
In prints that were made in the early days of kabuki, celebrated woodcut masters Utagawa Kunisada (also known as Toyokuni III)and Utagawa Toyokuni offered a look onto the stage, behind the scenes of performances, into the actors' dressing rooms and what is going on in the auditorium in the Kabuki Theaters. Depictions of dramatic scenes promoted new productions, name changes, or introduced new actors.
Superstars of stage and society
As actors became increasingly popular, the genre of yakusha-e became unrivaled. Portraits of popular actors were published as star posters and collectibles. Stars such as Danjuro VII had tremendous fan clubs and endorsed pints with their names. They were often depicted in the role that best suited them, with their splendid costumes and impressive gestures. The actors could be identified by a small inscription or the crests (mon) depicted on their attire. Colors and symbols were crucial in portraying the actors and their roles in the plays. Red makeup was used on the hero, blue on villains, while the lines helped exaggerate features and emotions. Because the profession was reserved for men only, female roles (onnagata) had to be played by men as well. Not surprisingly, therefore, onnagata were also considered fashion icons whose roles aroused as much interest as their private life.