From the mid 1840s on, a gradual loosening of the promulgated anti-luxury laws was seen in Osaka, eventually leading to a ‘renaissance’ of the brocade print. The first prints published after the ones of 3/1842, appeared in the beginning of 1847 and apparently were meant to put the officials to a test. As a precaution the names of the portrayed actors were not included in the design. When the officials did not intervene, the artists and publishers realized that the ban on actor prints was no longer in effect. Now the print production was resumed cautiously, after a complete stop of nearly five years. It gradually increased in the months that followed, but the artists and publishers continued avoiding unnecessary provocation and did not take the risk to mention actors’ names on the prints, as strictly speaking it still was forbidden to portray actors. However, the features of the actors on the prints were easily recognized by the theatregoers of the time. Also identification was often made possible by incorporating the family crest or a personal emblem of the portrayed actor into the design. As a matter of fact the omission of the actors’ names on prints wasn’t considered a problem.
In order to distract the officials somewhat more, or to bring about some tolerance from the government, the pioneering artists added fictitious titles to their prints, suggesting that the portraits were actually representations of famous men and women from history and legend. Titles such as Tales of honour and martial arts, or, A hundred tales of bravery of our country, and Tales of loyalty and filial devotion, embodied moral qualities and seemingly served an educational purpose. Prints with titles of this kind usually formed sets of only a few pieces and left something to the imagination of both the public and the officials.
The names of the actors were not mentioned on the prints, but the artists did mention the actors’ roles. Either small characters were used for this purpose, often placed in a cartouche, or bold characters that were printed more or less across the background in the upper part of the print. The last is stylistically identical with the way an actor’s name was mentioned on most of the chūban prints published in the late 1830s and early 1840s. The use of cartouches, in a great variety of shapes, wasn’t really a new element since it is known from a great number of earlier prints, in particular ōban.
The first prints of the resumed production showed a variety of formats. In the beginning the koban format was used frequently, but soon a gradual shift towards chūban could be seen, eventually leading to an immense popularity of chūban prints in the new style that had been developed in the years preceding the announcement of the ban on actor prints.
Hirosada succeeded in becoming the most popular artist of the late 1840s and early 1850s. In those years he designed some eight hundred single-sheet prints, outnumbering by far the prints designed by any other contemporary artist.3 Generally it is assumed that Hirosada is identical with Sadahiro. Although the argumentation for the assumption is quite convincing, the theses probably will remain a matter of discussion until the missing piece of evidence is discovered.4
1. The series is listed S36 in Robinson, B.W., Kuniyoshi, the Warrior-Prints. It is a joint work of Kunisada and Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861). The inset picture by Sadahiro appears on print 14, entitled ‘Izu Province’. The artist’s signature reads monjin (pupil) Sadahiro ga. The inset by Sadamasu forms part of print 52 of the series. The print refers to Kii Province and depicts the legendary Ishikawa Goemon. The inset shows a pagoda and a lucky constellation on a night in spring.
2. When Kunisada changed his name to Toyokuni II he ignored the former use of that name by Utagawa Toyoshige (1777-1835). To avoid confusion, Kunisada nowadays is referred to as Toyokuni III.