After 1629, all female kabuki roles were played by onnagata, male actors who specialized in female roles. These actors practiced feminine mannerisms and dress both onstage and off. They were widely considered more graceful than real women. Mizuki Tatsunosuke was a particularly famous onnagata of the late 17th century. Yoshitoshi presents the elegant man on a moonlit stroll beneath the blossoming cherry trees. All actors were required to shave off their forelocks, lest their beauty corrupt public morality, so the actor wears a purple scarf to hide his shaven head. He holds a fan in one hand and a poem card in the other. The poem reads:
“Over the Sumida River
Lined with blooming cherry trees Temple bells are tolling.
As the dusk deepens
I admire the moon.”
The son of a Tokyo physician, Yoshitoshi Tsukioka (né Kinzaburo Yoshioka) is considered one of the last great masters of ukiyo-e. As a young boy he showed remarkable talent and began to study under the renowned Kuniyoshi at the age of 12. Yoshitoshi also studied under Yosai and was adopted by the Tsukioka family.
As modernization pushed ahead, Yoshitoshi suffered a nervous breakdown in 1872, living in poverty and ceasing all artistic production. A year later, he resumed working; adopting the artist name Taiso and fulfilling his creative potential. In 1885, he began one of his most acclaimed series, 100 Views of the Moon. In the spring of 1892, he suffered his final mental breakdown and was committed to the Sugamo Asylum. On the 9th of June 1892, he died of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 53.
Yoshitoshi’s prints are known for their eerie and imaginative component. He worked in a Japan undergoing rapid change, straddling the domains of the old, feudal systems and the new, modern world. His considerable imagination and originality imbued his prints with a sensitivity and honesty rarely seen in ukiyo-e of this time period. From ghost stories to folktales, graphic violence to the gentle glow of the moon, Yoshitoshi not only offers compositional and technical brilliance, but also unfettered passion.