However there is no reference which I know of, either online or in print, that allows a collector who does not have some familiarity with Japanese to decipher the names of the actors portrayed in the prints; these names are invariably given somewhere on the print. This site is an attempt to fill that gap.
It is usually the case that the artist's signature is in a lower corner - as here, where the three characters read (from the top, as explained above) "toyo" and "kuni" (the artist's name, Toyokuni), and "ga" (literally, 'brush-stroke', meaning 'painted by'). Also, along the bottom or sides one can almost always find a censor seal (from 1790 until 1876, all woodblock prints had to be examined by official censors, and marked with their seals), which often allow the print to be dated quite accurately); this particular print does not seem to have one, though. Finally, there is quite often a publisher's seal (as here), also usually along either the sides or on the bottom.
In the upper corner(s) one can usually find the title (if any) of the print, and, for kabuki-ga, the name of the actor and the role they are shown in. (Sometimes the actor's name is lower down, though.) Kabuki-ga do not often have separate titles, although they are seen in some; titles are much more common in landscape and other prints. Some or all of this information will sometimes be in one or more cartouches (as in the particular example here), and sometimes simply inserted in the ground (as was done with the artist's signature in this print); the latter is usual for actors' names. In this particular print, the actor's name is at the bottom of the cartouche, in larger kanji.
The sorts of variations from the 'norm' exhibited in this print are typical
for woodblock prints; one has to accept that (as with just about everything
in Japanese woodblock prints!) there are no hard-and-fast rules which one can
always follow. Something to remember! With time, you'll get used to what
signatures, etc look like, and you'll quickly recognize when they are in an
unusual place, or are missing completely.
To work out which characters in the top corner(s) are the name of the actor, it helps to know that:
To use the tables, look down them until you find the family name of the actor you are trying to identify (you can click on any image to see a larger version). When you find it, click on the rōmaji version of the name; the link will take you to a subsidiary page for that particular family, which in identical fashion gives the names of the most commonly seen members of that family.
When the actor's name is now usually written with different (simplified) kanji, they are given in brackets, with those used in the name as shown above them. Again, the names on each page are listed in alphabetical order (for no particularly good reason).
If you cannot find the actor's name there (there are many more Kabuki actors than we have scanned name images for yet), you can try to find it by clicking on the 'Other names' link at the top of the family section on each page. That link takes you to a page on another site which lists, and shows the kanji for, more actors in this family. Many of the images there are very small, but it is currently much more comprehensive.
Japanese artists in may fields have 'art-names' (gō) in Japanese), a pseudonym used by an artist, which they sometimes change. In the field of kabuki-ga, this applies not just to the artists who drew the prints, but to the actors portayed in them. In both fields, prominent schools and/or families have over time developed a series of these names, the myoseki, and as people advance in seniority, they change names to succesively use the more 'senior' names; in kabuki, this process is named shūmei.
In kabuki, this system is even more advanced than it is in the field of woodblock prints. To use as an example the most honoured of all the myoseki, Ichikawa Danjūrō, there have been no less than 12 people holding this name since the first Ichikawa Danjūrō (who died in 1704). A page at the Kabuki21.Com site which lists the lineages for which they have pages contains almost 300 of these myoseki.
That is why the links to the page for the actor(s) of each name at the Kabuki 21 Web-site (if one exists) are to pages which contain a list of all the holders of a given myoseki - the prints themselves almost never show which holder of a particular name is portrayed.
One has to use a number of different clues to figure out which holder of the name is being shown in the print. One good one is using the censor seal to determine the date of a print, which will generally allow one to determine definitively which holder of a given name is shown. Another one, although more difficult to use, is that if the play, role, etc shown can be identified, cast lists may be able to ascertain the date of the performance, and thus the identity of the actor shown.
Sometimes a name can be written in two ways; one will be in kanji, and the other partially or wholly in hiragana. In these cases, this page provides images of both (along with the printed formal form for each).
Note that usually in each family name there is one kanji which is simple and fairly distinctive, and easy to pick out; if one locates one of these, it's a simple matter to check the nearby characters to see if you have identified the family name correctly. (This page suggests characters to focus on by putting them in a slightly larger size in the kaisho column of the table.)
If you hover your mouse pointer over a signature image, it will show the name of the artist who produced the print which this version of the name is from. We have conciously tried to provide name images from many artists, to give a better idea of the range of variations to be found in the way particular characters are written.
|市川||Ichikawa||Both characters in this name are not uncommon, but the combination is unique. This is the most common family of actors, so one quickly learns to recognize it.|
|河原崎||Kawarazaki||Searching for the 崎 character is not optimal, as this is a fairly complex character, but it's probably the best option; even the hurried variants look like it.|
|Arashi||The hiragana form is quite rare, but is seen occasionally.
The first character in it is actually a hentaigana character; since these are not in Unicode (yet), we have given the kanji it is based on.
|三枡||Mimasu||Searching for the 三 character is not optimal, as this is a common character (with alternate reading 'san'), but it will have to do.|
|瀬川||Segawa||Searching for the 川 ('gawa') character is not optimal, as this is a common character, but it will have to do.|
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Last updated: 20/May/2019