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Ukiyo-e Toshusai Sharaku The actor Otani Oniji as Edobee

Ukiyo-e Toshusai Sharaku The actor Otani Oniji as Edobee

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Sharaku is perhaps an unusual example among the world's artists: he has left quite a number of masterpieces, yet his biography remains absolutely obscure. Despite his remarkable activity, nothing is known about the dates of his birth and death, the motive of his becoming an ukiyo-e artist, or the reason of his sudden disappearance from the ukiyo-e world.

Sharaku's first works were portraits of actor as they appeared on the stages of the three kabuki theaters in Edo (Kawarasaki-za, Kiri-za and Miyako-za) in May of 1794. He thereafter published one hundred forty odd picture one after another, until he ended his activity with portraits of actors in their performance in January of 1795. His whereabouts after that is totally unknown.

There are various interpretations as to the reason why Sharaku's activity was so short-lived. It is generally a rule that the first work of an artist, or the work which brought fame to him, cannot be free from certain rigid effect. In the case of Sharaku, however, his first works are the finest both in artistic value and in technical perfection as ukiyo-e pictures. The afore-mentioned “Ukiyo-e Ruiko” states that the artist lost popularity “because he, out of his excessive eagerness for life-like portrayal, made pictures in disagreeably exaggerated depiction”, and was forced to withdraw from the ukiyo-e world.

Eager to catch the expressions of the actors on the stage, he concentrated his depiction on the characteristics of the faces at certain instantaneous moments, heedless of any attempt at portraying the beautiful countenances, which theatergoers love to see. He was successful in what he wanted to do, but he dissatisfied the ukoyo-e buyers in what they wanted to have. The picture reproduced here is a good example.

The actor shown here is Otani Oniji, as he appeared on the stages as Edobei in May 1794. We see the roguish face of Edobei, the blackmailer and impostor, but we do not find any charm of the handsome actor's looks. In the upturned eyes, the tightly closed mouth and the pointed nose, the picture reproduces the traits of the actor's features as well as the character of his role with remarkable accuracy. It certainly is a superb work of portraiture, but it is not within the generally accepted category of contemporary portraits of good-looking actors.

The pose, with the depressed stomach, projecting shoulders and open hands, also is perfectly successful in impressing the observer with the menacing, malicious demeanor of the role. The author, however, should point out the unnatural postures of the open hands. He cannot help finding here an example of inaccuracy in the grasp of the human body, which is the worst defect of ukiyo-e as well as of Japanese painting in general. The blame is not due to Sharaku alone, of course.

Screen dimensions 39.0×25.5cm
Frame size 55.5×40.0cm
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