Understanding One of Japanese Art's Great Secrets

In May in 1794 an unknown artist with no known qualifications walked into the woodblock print publisher Tsutaya Juzaburo in what was then called Edo, now Tokyo, and somehow persuaded him to commission a series of portraits of leading actors in the hugely popular Kabuki theater.

Although Juzaburo had already published the work of other famous woodblock artists, such as Utamaro, he must have detected some spark of artistic talent in the young man (one imagines he was young, as his age is just one of the many things not known about him).

Within weeks he had produced more than two dozen portraits of startling originality and beauty, images that are among the most instantly recognizable images of Japan extant. He went on to produce about a hundred more woodblock prints. Then, 10 months after he had emerged, seemingly from nowhere, he disappeared.

Sharaku's identity is probably the most intriguing mystery in the Japanese art world, or, for that matter, anywhere in the art world. Aside from possibly his real name, and that is disputed, almost nothing is known about this mysterious genius. All that is left is his work, and that speaks for itself.

The recent exhibition of Sharaku's work at the Tokyo National Museum, ending June 12 takes a conservative stance on the identity of the mystery artist, saying only that it accepts that there really was such an individual. (There are theories that Sharaku was not one artist, but a committee of artists.) Beyond that it declines to speculate.

The mystery of who Sharaku was is somewhat similar to that of Shakespeare, where there are still some who doubt that the plays written in his name were actually written by the real person named Shakespeare rather then somebody else. Similar theories assert that the artist named Sharaku was another famous woodblock print artist, under a different name.

The German art critic an scholar Julius Kurth, who “discovered” Sharaku in the early part of the last century and popularized his art, maintained that Sharaku was actually a Noh play actor named Jurobei Saito, but the name really tells us nothing, and his status as Noh actor only a little more.

Noh drama is a highly refined, rarified kind of religious drama. Modern Japanese have trouble understanding it. By contrast Kabuki is earthy, popular, plebian entertainment. Kabuki actors were as popular as Hollywood stars today. The prints were the pinup posters of the day.

Kabuki actors were the subject of literally thousands of prints, from pedestrian playbills to artistic masterpieces. But none of the woodblock print artists of the day bothered to depict Noh actors, not even Sharaku. It's been more than 100 years since Kurth published his 1910 book Sharaku, but no scholar has yet been able to advance on his findings.

If Sharaku's real identity is unknown, not so his subjects. They were the most popular actors of the day, and one of the fascinating things about the exhibition was its decision to juxtapose portraits of the same actor by Sharaku and drawings by contemporary artists such as Toyukuni and Choki.

Yet it is impossible, even for an untrained eye, not to see the differences immediately. The first two dozen portraits by Sharaku are relatively large prints, showing the actor in half profile. Each portrait has three main elements: At the top a black hairpiece (a more elaborate coiffure for those male actors portraying women).

The face is basically a blank spot with two piercing black dots for eyes under a heavy eyebrow. The rest of the facial features are barely visible, with only a hint of a nose and a thin slit for a mouth usually curved down in a frown. The final element is the richly colored and detailed costume (sometimes the hands show an expressive fourth element).

Together, this first batch of work seems to have emerged fully developed and not the work of an apprentice artist struggling to find his style while copying and improving on the style of his contemporaries. It almost seems as if the artist got things backward, a dramatic debut with a revolutionary style and then a turn to more prosaic portraits.

After producing about 28 of these large half portraits, Sharaku suddenly switched to more conventional full sized portraits in a smaller format, which, though often charming in themselves, do not seem all that different from the many portraits being churned out by other woodblock artists and publishing houses.

It is speculated that the subjects of his work were not all that pleased with how they were depicted and that his publisher prevailed on him to tone things down. It is tempting to think that he eventually decided to quit rather than see his art corrupted in this fashion, although there is no evidence to support this romantic notion.

It is a testament to the confidence of the Tokyo Museum of Art and many other museums around the world that Tokyo could even hold this exhibition. It was originally to open around April 1, about three weeks after the mammoth earthquake and numerous recurring aftershocks set people on edge.

The museum delayed the opening for a month as it sent queries to museums around the world as to whether they were comfortable lending their treasures to Tokyo. Most of them were. As a consequence, the museum was able to put together an exhibit, displaying almost every one of the 140 or so known Sharaku prints, the first such comprehensive exhibit and maybe the last.

The world of the floating world was as fleeting as the name implies. It flared up for a few brief decades with Sharaku at the pinnacle and then died. But the Kabuki theater still thrives in Japan, and men still play the women's parts. But the young people now hang posters of rock stars and film actors.