Certainly no doubt at all about the designer of this print - Toshusai Sharaku! This is a reproduction of one of his famous actor prints, and depicts the kabuki actor Bando Mitsugoro II in the role of Ishii Genzo, in the play 'Hana Ayame Bunroku Soga'.
A great deal has been written about Sharaku, about the mystery of who he was, where he came from, and why he 'disappeared' so suddenly after producing so many interesting print designs in such a short time. Quite an 'industry' has grown up around these questions: I was buttonholed at one of my exhibitions a few years ago by an elderly gentleman who had gone to the expense of publishing his own research volume describing how Sharaku was really Hokusai working under another name (it seems the key point was the way in which big toes were drawn in a similar fashion!). As I certainly don't have anything to add to such debates, I'll leave the detective work and analysis to the scholars and stick to the job of trying to produce the print as well as I can!
This is the first Sharaku print I have ever made, and indeed, it is the first 'classical' reproduction to be included in these albums, in the sense of being a well-known design from a well-known artist - a 'standard number', as they say in Japanese. Ever since Japan opened up to the west the market for such prints - Hokusai's wave, Hiroshige's Tokaido, Utamaro's 'large heads', and of course Sharaku actor portraits - has been insatiable. These images 'represent' Japan, and are instantly recognizable all over the world. The viewers may not know that this is Bando Mitsugoro, and they probably will not understand what he is doing and why his eyes are crossed, but they will certainly know that this is 'Japanese'.
I can't even begin to imagine just how many hundreds of thousands of reproductions of the most famous prints have been made down the years, providing 'bread and butter' work for generations of traditional craftsmen. This is a major reason behind my own general reluctance to include such designs in these Surimono Albums; I'm much more interested in showing people some of the hidden treasures of Japanese traditional printmaking. But it would be a strange series of Japanese prints that ignored such work altogether, so I think that now and then I should dip into the repertoire of 'standards', and set to work in the footsteps of all those craftsmen down the years, cutting the same designs that have been cut so many times before ... (But only now and then!)
I did enjoy making this one though; it might be routine work for many craftsmen, but the fact that a design is famous certainly doesn't mean it is easy to produce. For example, this actor's head is printed from two blocks, one in light grey and one in dark black. The registration between these two blocks is critical (particularly in the area of the mouth and eyes), and as the light grey is printed right at the beginning of the process, to be followed by the dark black only at the very end after the paper has been repeatedly printed (and stretched) with all the other colours and the background, it is quite a challenge to get them lined up properly.
Then there is the karazuri, the blind printing ... After last month's print went out, I waited to see what kind of feedback came in, and among the notes was one that I had pretty much expected: "You really are insisting that we learn to appreciate 'blind printing', aren't you!" I wonder what this collector will feel when she opens the package this month; so far this year, every print has had some embossing! I certainly didn't plan it this way, things just seemed to get out of hand a little. But considering the variety of designs that we are covering, I suppose that nobody will really complain about the prints being 'all the same'!
All in all, I'm glad I chose this design; I learned a lot while making it, and based on reaction from people who saw it on my workbench during the time I was working on it, I think it should be received well by the collectors too. I hope you agree!