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Kabuki Special > [ Kabuki Theaters Flourish ] [ The Birth of Star Actors (Senryō-Yakusha) ]

The Birth of Star Actors (Senryō-Yakusha)


Sugoroku of Dressing Rooms with a Great Success (Oatari Gakuya Sugoroku)Painted by Toyohara Kunichika

Contemporary kabuki is very much appreciated around the world as a comprehensive art form with distinctive elements including music, artistic devices (machinery and costumes), dancing, literature (scenarios), and dramatization, etc. Of these, actors are considered to represent the most important facet of the kabuki tradition. Many kabuki-themed woodblock prints (ukiyo-e) were produced during the Edo period as they could easily be sold to fans. In particular, portraits of famous actors (yakusha-e) whose subjects struck poses from famous theatrical pieces proved to be very popular with the public. These prints were bought not only Ed people but also by non-Edo residents as souvenirs of visits to the city.


[The Wig Series, New Edition (Shinpan Mage Zukushi)] Painted by Utagawa Yoshifuji1848 - 1852 (Kōka 4 to Kaei 5)

Many kabuki actors earned considerable amounts of money if they became popular. These star actors came to be known as "senryô-yakusha" among the general public. The term, "senryô-yakusha", referred to those who act in an excellent and a dignified manner. Every kabuki actors signed a contract with his employer every year, promising that he would work for his employer exclusively for one year from November. It is believed that some excellent actors received a fortune as performance fee for one year and called "senryô-yakusha". Because of this word is used as an expression of an actor who act in an excellent and dignified manner. Whatever the case may be, this suggests that kabuki was extremely popular during the Edo period.


The Flower of Edo (Sukeroku Yukari no Edozakura) Painted by Utagawa Kunisada I 1832 (Tempō 3)

What kinds of kabuki actors were considered to be great stars (i.e. senryô-yakusha) in those days? Yoshizawa Ayame I (1673-1729) and Ichikawa Danjûrô II (1688-1758) are two examples of such actors. The former achieved a great success in acting in the Kansai region, while the latter was known as the first actor to perform the play called Sukeroku. Indeed, this role is still performed by his descendants of Ichikawa Danjûrô II up until today. Many great stars called senryô-yakusha including Sawamura Tanosuke III (1845-1878) and Onoe Kikujirô II (1814-1875) appeared on the scene at the end of Edo period, their rise being in accordance with the wide popularity of Kabuki.


Quick Practice to Draw Portraits of Kabuki Actors (Yakusha Nigao Hayageiko) Pained by Utagawa Toyokuni I
1817 (Bunka 14)

* To view more explanation, please click the each image.


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