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Natori Shunsen


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Natori Shunsen

Natori Shunsen, one of the finest designers of actor prints, was born Natori Yoshinosuke, the fifth son of a silk merchant. The family moved to Tokyo after Shunsen's father lost his business. In Tokyo, Shunsen had the opportunity to begin his artistic training. At the age of eleven, he began studying with Kubota Beisen (1852-1906), a Japanese-style (Nihonga) painter. During this time he received his artist's name "Shunsen". He later studied at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts.

In 1909 Shunsen began working at the Tokyo Newspaper, Asahi Shinbun, illustrating the newspaper's literary sections and serialized novels. He worked with many famous authors and developed an interest in depicting literary characters. Illustrating kabuki actors was a natural extension of this work. The kabuki theater was very popular at that time and the stories and characters were well known by the public. In 1915 Shunsen first became involved in designing actor prints. He contributed several print designs to the booklet 'New Actor Portraits' (Shin Nigao-e). Other artists involved with this project were Yamamura Toyonari (Koka) and Torii Kotondo.

While working at the newspaper, Shunsen began to exhibit his paintings of kabuki and literary characters. During an exhibit in 1916, the woodblock publisher Watanabe Shozaburo happened to see one of Shunsen's actor portraits, Nakamura Ganjiro as Kamiya Jihei. Watanabe was immediately impressed by the work and wanted to employ Shunsen as a print designer for his "new prints" (shin hanga). Shunsen agreed to a collaboration and Watanabe produced two actor prints from his designs in 1916 and 1917.

The first print, Nakamura Ganjiro as Kamiya Jihei, was based on Shunsen's earlier painting. Ganjiro, a prominent kabuki actor, was famed for his portrayal of the tormented Kamiya Jihei in the Chikamatsu play Shinju ten no Amijima ("The love suicide at Amijima"). In this story, Kamiya Jihei, a married man with two children, has been having an affair with the courtesan Koharu. He is in deeply in love with her and they make plans to commit double suicide. However, before they can go through with it, Jihei's wife Osan writes to Koharu and convinces her to give up her relationship with him. Unfortunately Jihei cannot go on with his life and forget about Koharu, which results in great shame for his family. His wife is taken away by her father against her will, leaving Jihei alone with their despondent children. He finally reunites with Koharu, and they commit double suicide at Amijima. This tragic romance was extremely popular with audiences from the Edo period onward.

After 1917 Shunsen decided to pursue other opportunities, though Watanabe probably would have liked to continue their collaboration. However, in 1925 they got another chance to work together. Shunsen had started designing a series of 36 actor portraits for the publisher Kikuchi Yoshimaru. After the first print was completed, Kikuchi decided to turn over the project to Watanabe. This series would showcase some of Shunsen's finest kabuki designs. Watanabe lavishly produced each print in a limited edition of 150 and sold them only by subscription. The series lasted through 1929, and was followed by a supplement series of 15 actor prints produced through 1931.

Shunsen's actor portraits were mainly in the okubi-e (large head) format which allowed him to focus on the expression and emotions of the character's face. He also designed a few bijin-ga prints during the late 1920's, both with Watanabe and the publisher Kato Junji. These prints (at least those produced by Watanabe) seem rather flat in comparison to the vibrant kabuki portraits, perhaps because they are not okubi-e.

Shunsen continued to work as an artist in the kabuki theater, but did not design any other actor prints until the early 1950's. From 1951 to 1954, he collaborated with Watanabe on another series of 30 contemporary actor prints. Like the earlier series, these designs were beautifully printed and are very expressive, especially the okubi-e portraits. However, to some critics, they are not as strikingly original as the first series, echoing the decline of the kabuki theater during that time. Tragically, Shunsen and his wife lost their beloved daughter Yoshiko to pneumonia in 1958. They were unable to recover from their grief and committed double suicide on the family grave in Tokyo.

Prints by Series or by Publisher

Commissioned Prints


36 Portraits of Actors in Various Roles


Bijin-ga Prints


Supplement of 15 Actor Prints


30 Portraits of Contemporary Actors in Kabuki Plays


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