Tōshūsai Sharaku
Ichikawa Omezō I in the Role of the Servant Ippei
1794, 5th month

Signed: Tōshūsai Sharaku ga; Publisher’s logo (Tsutaya Jūsaburō); censor’s seal: kiwame; ōkubi-e, ōban, 35.0 x 24.0 cm; nishiki-e with dark grey mica ground (kurokira)

Sharaku’s masterpiece is one of the most famous prints in the history of ukiyo-e. The actor Ichikawa Omezō is standing here in a dramatic pose (mi-e) with his eyes crossed, in the role of the knave (yakko) Ippei, forced to fight alone against a band of attackers. The scene is from the play Koinyobō somewake tazuna (“Beloved Wife Handling the Rein of Variegated Colors”), which premiered in the 5th month of the year 1794 at the Kawarazaki-za in Edo.

John Mellor (Sotheby’s, London, July 1963)
Riese Collection #91

Ippei has drawn his sword to defend himself against a band of attackers. He is wearing a loose red undergarment, and because of the contrast between this, the black collar, and the dark mica ground, this print is commonly known in Japan as the “red jūban”.
Handerson and Ledoux mention that impressions differ in the printing of the red block around the young man’s eyes. This block was engraved with a bevelled edge so that depending on the amount of ink and the amount of pressure applied, the area would appear larger or smaller, and in some cases, there would be an effect of pooling of the pigment at the edge of the block which would seem to give the coloured area a darker outline in places as on this impression and that reproduced by Handerson and Ledoux.

Jūzō Suzuki seems to have been the first to suggest that Sharaku’s half-length portraits of actors may originally have been issued not for sale, but as a specially commissioned work distribution to special theatrical patrons. In spite of their seeming rarity, Sharaku prints are commoner than bust portraits of actors by Shun’ei, Kunimasa, or Toyokuni, and are on the whole also commoner than the most important mica ground portraits of beauties by Utamaro.
This fact alone would argue that the prints were popular and sought after in their own day. Late impressions of the Sharaku heads also outnumber those of contemporary designers, and it is likely that the prints continued to be popular and were reprinted for some time. This is not to say that prints by Sharaku are extremely common. Among Japanese prints of the 18th century it is common for a design to be unique, or known by only two of three examples, as may be seen repeatedly in this collection. By contrast, at least ten impressions of this print are known, most of them in museum collections in Europe and America. But even this number is pitifully small compared with the dozens or even hundreds of surviving examples of well-known prints by European printmakers like Rembrandt and Dürer.

Reproduced in Ingelheim catalogue, no. 83 (colour)
Riese, Asiatische Studien, 1972, p. 103, no. 25 (colour)