One of Japan’s greatest mysteries is the true identity of the ukiyo-e (woodblock print) artist Toshusai Sharaku, whose entire career was crammed into a 10-month period from 1794 to 1795, during which he produced 145 separate print sheets.

With practically no reliable biographical information about the artist, various theories have sprung up. One suggests that he was a Noh actor called Saito Jurobei, another that he was the renowned Katsushika Hokusai using another name. One even proposes that he wasn’t a single person but rather a group of artists temporarily brought together by the publisher Tsutaya Juzaburo — who according to yet another theory may also have been Sharaku.

Perhaps a fear that such theories might detract from the art has led the Tokyo National Museum, in this comprehensive retrospective of the artist’s work, to make the assumption that Sharaku was a distinct individual with a unique artistic identity. Rather than getting embroiled in biographical conundrums, the exhibition prefers to approach the artist in the only way we can truly know him — through his art, with 142 of his works brought together alongside dozens of prints by contemporaries, rivals and a few successors. As the exhibition catalogue optimistically puts it, “This exhibition seeks an understanding of the basis of Sharaku’s creative genius, clarification of his formal expression and artistic characteristics, and confirmation of his oeuvre.”

Yet, despite these intentions, the unexorcized ghost of Sharaku’s mystery continues to haunt this show, with the artist’s identity a shimmering and unstable thing. The four batches into which his work has been divided — based on editions of prints issued to coincide with the calendar of Edo Period (1603-1867) kabuki theater — raise more questions than they answer. For example, his art emerges fully developed and then undergoes radical changes in style, format, and materials, while also losing much of its power. This suggests, although not very conclusively, a change of personnel rather than the natural evolution of an individual artist.

Sharaku made his debut in the fifth month of 1794 with 28 half-length portraits of kabuki actors, featuring dark, mica-enhanced backgrounds rendered by a then new technique. This contrast threw the figures into sharp relief, rather like chiaroscuro painting in 17th-century Europe, adding to their dramatic impact. This batch includes many of his best and most famous works, such as the iconic “The Actor Otani Oniji III as Edobei,” showing the actor in the role of a villain, with a look of intense hatred on his face and fingers outstretched ready to attack.

Other works, from this first supposed gush of creativity show onnagata (male kabuki actors playing female roles), such as “The Actors Iwai Kiyotaro II as Fujinami, Wife of Sagisaka Sanai,” and “Bando Zenji as Kozasa, Wife of Washizuka Kandayu.” In works like these, Sharaku chooses to juxtapose the masculinity of the actors with the femininity of their roles to comic and surreal effect.

Taken altogether, this first batch of work suggests a technically accomplished and confidently innovative master artist rather than a debuting one hoping to gradually emulate masters and role models. This point is underlined at the exhibition by the inclusion of contemporaneous works of rivals such as Kitagawa Utamaro. While Utamaro’s bijinga (pictures of beautiful women) are pleasant enough, the unruffled and interchangeable poker faces of the beauties lack the psychological intensity that emanates from Sharaku’s prints.

One of the ways Sharaku achieved this intensity was to use hands and costume to heighten and amplify the expressions on the subjects’ faces. A good example is “The Actor Ichikawa Ebizo as Takemura Sadanoshin,” a character who commits suicide in one of the plays. The tension is palpable through his clenched hands and the wrinkles in his face. These elements are also echoed in the numerous folds and claustrophobic appearance of his costume.

The next three batches of his work are dominated by full-length portraits of actors in which the face shrinks to a detail rather than being the main focus. These seem more compositional than psychological, with the costumes taking center stage. While there are still characteristic “Sharaku” touches, the overall feeling is of a fading brand name in the hands of lesser designers, but of course other explanations for this decline abound.

The artist and writer Ota Nanpo, who wrote “History of Floating World Prints” in the period after Sharaku, opined that his contemporaries were uncomfortable with what was considered Sharaku’s excessive realism. Possibly this undermined his initial popularity and may have prompted his publisher, Tsutaya Juzaburo, to pressure him to switch to full-length portraits and “tone things down a bit.” According to this view, these changes failed to revive Sharaku’s fortunes and his art lost out to blander but more palatable works by the likes of Katsukawa Shun’ei. Unlike Sharaku’s onnagata, who appear obviously as men, Katsukawa’s are indistinguishable from women.

This is a show that rewards close study, but just like conspiracy theories, the more you delve into Sharaku, the more mysterious, inexplicable and baffling this enigma of Japanese art becomes.

“Sharaku” at the Tokyo National Museum runs till June 12; admission ¥1,500; open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. For more information, visit www.tnm.jp.

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