These skillful paintings on paper by an Utagawa artist feature five great actors of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Matsumoto Kôshirô V (1764-1838; 五代目松本幸四郎) achieved fame as one of kabuki's greatest jitsuaku ("out and out" villain or "true" villain: 実役). Nicknamed Hanataka Kôshirô (High-nose Kôshirô: 鼻高幸四郎), this distinctive feature, along with small piercing eyes, aided him in dominating the stage in villain roles. He was also skilled in performing otokodate ("standing man" or chivalrous commoner: 男伊達 or 男作), specializing in the role of Banzuin Chôbei. Kôshirô's ability to infuse realism into his acting made him a favorite of the playwright Tsuruya Nanboku IV (1755-1829: 四代目鶴谷南北) as a performer for his kizewamono ("raw-life" plays: 生世話物), the realistic sewamono (everyday pieces or domestic plays: 世話物) of the lower elements of Edo urban life.
Bandô Mitsugorô III (1773-1831; 三代目坂東 三津五郎) was a performer of the first rank, a specialist in hengemono (transformation dances: 変化物) who founded the Bandô ryû school of dance. His good looks enhanced his portrayals of wagoto ("soft matter," a gentle, romantic style of acting: 和事) roles. He excelled in both jidaimono (period pieces or history plays: 時代物) and sewamono. Renowned for the human dimension he brought to many roles, his kata (forms or acting styles: 型), called Eiki no kata, influenced generations of performers. Notable, too, was his rivalry with Nakamura Utaemon III during the Osaka superstar's performances in Edo, as well as during Mitsugorô's sojourn in Kamigata (12/1820 - 2/1822).
Iwai Hanshirô V (1776-1847; 五代目岩井半四郎) was one of kabuki's great onnagata ("woman's manner or a performer of women's roles: 女方 or 女形). He was considered good-looking and charming. His large, bright eyes led to the nickname mesen ryô yakusha (actor with the thousand ryô eyes: 目千両役者). Hanshirô V was admired for his costume creations, some of which became standard kata for certain roles or were adopted as au-courant fashions by women in the general population. The hanshirô kanoko (Hanshirô's fawn coat: 津五郎鹿の子) was named after him, a hemp-leaf tie-dyed pattern on blue and red.
Onoe Kikugorô III (1784-1849; 三代目 尾上菊五郎) was supremely talented but eccentic and arrogant, with too strong a tendency to feud with other actors, most notably Ichikawa Danjûrô VII. Among his great roles was that of Oiwa in the play Tôkaidô yotsuya kaidan (Ghost story at Yotsuya on the Tôkaidô: 東海道四谷怪談), written for him by the playwright Tsuruya Nanboku IV, whose kaidan mono (ghost plays: 怪談物) are among the masterpieces of the kabuki repertoire. Although Kikugorô III specialized in vengeful ghosts, he was another of the fine kaneru yakusha (all-around actor: 兼ねる役者) whose versatility extended to katakiyaku (actor of villains: 敵役) and onnagata.
Ichikawa Danjûrô VII (1791-1859; 七代目市川團十郎), who also acted as Ichikawa Ebizô V (from 1832-1859; 五代目市川海老蔵), was a kabuki star of the first order. Not since the time of the first two Danjûrôs had the Ichikawa lineage of actors put forward a performer of such prestige and authority. In his prime he could perform an impressive range of role types, reaching the status of kaneru yakusha (versatile or all-around actor: 兼ねる役者). He was particularly adept at hayagawara (quick-change techniques: 早替り). In 1832 he established the Ichikawa jûhachiban (Eighteen favorite plays of the Ichikawa: 市川十八番). He led a notorious private life, with three wives and three concubines, occupying a splendid home and dining lavishly. When the Tempô kaikaku (Tenpô reforms: 天保改革) were issued by the shogun's government, Danjûrô VII was targeted for his hedonistic lifestyle (inappropriate for his low station in the Tokugawa-period social strata) and for using real armor on stage instead of a prop, and so was banned from Edo for seven years (he moved to Kamigata and continued to perform).
References: NKE, pp. 36, 186, 229, 390, 504