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Ota Masamitsu


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Figures of the Showa Stage
Figures of the Modern Stage in Their Most Famous Roles

Ota Masamitsu, also known as Ota Gako, designed numerous actor prints during the latter part of the shin hanga movement. Ota's designs illustrate the trend towards realistic portraiture in Japanese actor prints. His prints are comparable in quality to those of his contemporary, Natori Shunsen; however, his work has not received the same attention from collectors, and thus his prints are hard to find today.

Ota was involved with the kabuki theater throughout his life; in 1931, he illustrated a book about 18 kabuki plays (Kabuki juhachiban) and in 1966, he provided illustrations for Kabuki Costume, a book by Ruth Shaver. He did not begin designing kabuki woodblock prints until after WWII though. He is thought to have had a brief one-print collaboration with the publisher Watanabe in 1945. For whatever reason, this relationship did not last. During the early 1950's, Ota worked with the publisher Banchoro on two twelve-print series, Figures of the Showa Stage (Showa butai sugata, ca. 1950) and Figures of the Modern Stage in Their Most Famous Roles (Gendai butai geika, ca. 1955).

Ota's portraits are notable for their realistic shading and attention to detail, especially in the hands, faces, and clothing of the actors. It is interesting to compare Yamamura Toyonari's 1916 print of Oboshi Yuranosuke to Ota's 1955 print of the same role. Similar to the ukiyo-e prints of Sharaku and Toyokuni, Toyonari's simple design has a flat stylized quality rarely seen in later shin hanga. Ota's portrait is much more three-dimensional, employing the Western techniques of perspective and shading. The contrast in detail between the sharply etched actor and the blurred receding background gives this print a wonderful sense of depth. Ota's prints emphasized the individual personality of the actors over any traditional design conventions. (1)

(1)  Kendall H. Brown & Hollis Goodall-Cristante, Shin-Hanga, New Prints in Modern Japan, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles: 1996, pp. 50-54.

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