Yakusha-e, a type of nishiki-e that depicted Kabuki actors, were popular with fans. Let’s have a look at the representative actors of the first half of the 19th century, an especially brilliant period.
Matsumoto Koshiro V (1764–1838)
This actor played jitsuaku, villainous stock characters who are cool-headed and ruthless, and was admired as the greatest of his time. He had sharp eyes and a prominent nose, and when he performed mie (“pose,” a performance skill that saw the actor use their power and freeze) he was so tremendous that children in the audience would cry because they were so scared. He was known as Hanataka Koshiro, or “Long-nose Koshiro,” and his face was often drawn from the side to make his characteristically prominent nose stand out.
Matsuomaru in “Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami” (Sugawara and the Secrets of Calligraphy), Nikki Danjo in “Meiboku Sendai Hagi” (Troubles in the Date Clan), Takechi Mitsuhide in “Toki wa Ima Kikyo no Hataage”, Igami no Gonta in “Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura” (Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees), and more.
Bando Mitsugoro III (1775–1831)
Bando Mitsugoro III was the best at playing stock characters who are refined yet have strong hearts in Edo wagoto (a soft and subtle style of performance), and also won acclaim with his roles as generals in jidai-mono (historical plays set before 1600s). He excelled at dance, and several roles that he created through henge-buyo transformation dances, in which the actor changes costume repeatedly as they dance, have become convention. He also formed original dances that have been passed down to the present day. Nishiki-e often depict him dancing.
Ashikaga Yorikane in “Meiboku Sendai Hagi” (Troubles in the Date Clan), Kumagai no Jiro Naozane in “Ichinotani Futaba Gunki” (Chronicles of the Battle of Ichinotani), Saito Sanemori in “Genpei Nunobiki no Taki” (Sanemori’s Tale), and more.
Iwai Hanshiro V (1776–1847)
Iwai Hanshiro V was an onnagata (an actor who plays female roles) who established a new stock character known as an akuba (evil woman), a character that will commit evil acts for the man she loves. He was blessed with good looks, his eyes were particularly winsome and attractive, and he also excelled at speech techniques, making him both popular and magnetic. He was eager to study performance skills, and was widely acclaimed for his hayagawari (instant role changes), transforming into seven roles by himself. Images of him performing hayagawari are also shown on nishiki-e.
Osome in “Osome Hisamatsu Ukina no Yomiuri” (The Scandalous Love of Osome and Hisamatsu), Dote no Oroku in “Kakitsubata Iro mo Edozome”, Onna Seigen in “Sumidagawa Hana no Goshozome” (The Sumida River and the Aristocratic Color of the Cherry Blossoms – Female Seigen -), Sakurahime in “Sakurahime Azuma Bunsho” (The Scarlet Princess and her story in the East), and more.
Onoe Kikugoro III (1784–1849)
Onoe Kikugoro III demonstrated superb skills through a wide variety of stock characters, from sophisticated lovers to female roles; his fixed performance skills are still being passed on today. He was blessed with such good looks that the people around him acknowledged it when he murmured, “Why am I such a good-looking man?” while looking in a mirror backstage. He was also imaginative and creative when performing, and his forte was hayagawari and kaidan-mono (ghost stories). He was often pictured performing with Ichikawa Danjuro VII, who was also his rival.
Sakuramaru in “Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami” (Sugawara and the Secrets of Calligraphy), Hayano Kampei in “Kanadehon Chushingura” (The Treasury of 47 Loyal Retainers), Igami no Gonta in “Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura” (Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees), Sukeroku in “Sukeroku” (Sukeroku, the Hero of Edo), Oiwa in “Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan” (The Ghosts of Yotsuya), and more.
Ichikawa Danjuro VII (1791–1859)
Ichikawa Danjuro VII was an accomplished actor who collected the aragoto (a heroic, wild style of performance) plays that had been passed down through his family in “Kabuki-juhachiban” (Eighteen Kabuki Pieces). He played a wide range of stock characters; in addition to aragoto roles, he performed parts such as the attractive and villainous iroaku. He was familiar to people as a representative actor of Edo (modern-day Tokyo), but was suppressed by the government when it tightened its grip on public morals. He was pictured as a powerful figure who made use of his large eyes.
Musashibo Benkei in “Kanjincho” (The Subscription List), Kumagai no Jiro Naozane in “Ichinotani Futaba Gunki” (Chronicles of the Battle of Ichinotani), Matsuomaru in “Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami” (Sugawara and the Secrets of Calligraphy), Tamiya Iemon in “Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan” (The Ghosts of Yotsuya), Seigen and Tsurigane Gonsuke in “Sakurahime Azuma Bunsho” (The Scarlet Princess and her story in the East), Fuwa Banzaemon in “Ukiyozuka Hiyoku no Inazuma” (The Troubles of the Sasaki Clan and a Clash of Love and Pride in the Pleasure Quarters: Fuwa Banzaemon vs. Nagoya Sanza and Shirai Gompachi), and more.
Nakamura Utaemon III (1778–1838)
This actor was active in Kyoto and Osaka, but was also hugely popular in Edo. He wasn’t blessed in voice or appearance, but by refining his skills and exercising his ingenuity he became a versatile actor who could perform a variety of characters well, including older characters, villains, romantic leads (nimaime), and women. Hayagawari was his specialty; he also excelled at dance, and competed with Bando Mitsugoro III, an expert in henge-buyo transformation dances. He was depicted with his large, goggling eyes open wide.
Kumagai no Jiro Naozane in “Ichinotani Futaba Gunki” (Chronicles of the Battle of Ichinotani), Ishikawa Goemon in “Sanmon Gosan no Kiri” (The Paulownia Crest at the Golden Gate to the Nanzenji Temple), Hokaibo in “Sumidagawa Gonichi no Omokage” , and more.