Paintings of Actors (Yakusha-e)

During the Edo period, kabuki plays were a popular urban entertainment on a par with visits to, or at least gossip about, the pleasure quarters. Kabuki actors had celebrity status equivalent to that of the reigning female beauties of the day, and the common people vied with one another to purchase likenesses of popular actors in stage costume. In the early stages of the genre, the subjects were overly idealized and drawn with stereotyped expressions, to the extent that without some indication, for instance in the form of a troupe-designating mark on an actor's clothing, it was nearly impossible to distinguish paintings of some of the younger actors or of those playing women's roles from paintings of "beautiful women." The progenitor of yakusha-e is said to be Torii Kiyonobu (1664 - 1729). In addition to charming, often effeminate representations of actors at rest, he also depicted, with a mixture of very thick and very thin brushstrokes which gave exaggerated expression to bodily proportions, actors engaged in soul-stirring stage perfomances.

Yakusha-e eventually discarded their extreme stereotypical features and developed into portrait painting that bore a reasonable likeness to particular individuals. Pioneers in this process were Ippitsusai Buncho and Katsukawa Shunsho. Shunsho's pupils Shunko and Shun'ei further developed the genre, particularly in the direction of close-up facial portraits. Eventually the yakusha-e of Toshusai Sharaku, who tried to express something of his subjects' inner thoughts and character, were added to the genre.