Sanogawa Ichimatsu III in the Role of the Courtesan Onnayo of Gion and Ichikawa Tomieimon in the Role of Kanisaka Tōma


The term ukiyo-e, literally “pictures of the floating world,” refers to a genre of Japanese artwork that flourished in the Edo period (1600–1868). As the phrase “floating world” suggests, with its roots in the ephemeral worldview of Buddhism, ukiyo-e captured the fleeting dynamics of contemporary urban life. While being accessible and catering to “common” tastes, the artistic and technical details of these prints show remarkable sophistication, their subjects ranging from portraits of courtesans and actors to classical literature. This print is a modern reproduction of an older work by Tōshusai Sharaku, an artist who produced actor prints of radical design during a short period of ten months in 1794–95. Sharaku’s identity and existence remain a mystery, however, as there are no records relating to the rest of his life. He was unique in his frank portrayal of his subjects, which revealed the interplay between the actor in his role as a fictional character and as an individual. The image is based on a popular kabuki-kyōgen (comedy play). The two seemingly disparate characters are masterfully connected through opposition, expressed in their facial features, such as the face line, eyes, and eyebrows. The resulting image contrasts the proud and glamorous demeanor of the courtesan Onnayo with the petty appearance of her opponent, a minor character in the play.

Last updated: September 25, 2015