Natori Shunsen

Natori Shunsen 名取春仙 (1886-1960)


Source: Hanga Gallery website and Dramatic Impressions: Japanese Theatre Prints from the Gilbert Luber Collection, Chance, Frank L. & Davis, Julie Nelson, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007, p. 37-46.

Natori Shunsen, one of the finest designers of actor prints, was born Natori Yoshinosuke, the fifth son of a silk merchant. The family moved to Tokyo after Shunsen's father lost his business.  In Tokyo, Shunsen had the opportunity to begin his artistic training. At the age of eleven, he began studying with Kubota Beisen (1852-1906), a Japanese-style (Nihonga) painter. During this time he received his artist's name "Shunsen". He later studied at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts. 

In 1909 Shunsen began working at the Tokyo Newspaper, Asahi Shinbun, illustrating the newspaper's literary sections and serialized novels. He worked with many famous authors and developed an interest in depicting literary characters. Illustrating kabuki actors was a natural extension of this work. The kabuki theater was very popular at that time and the stories and characters were well known by the public. In 1915 Shunsen first became involved in designing actor prints. He contributed several print designs to the magazine New Actor Portraits (Shin Nigao-e). Other artists involved with this project were Yamamura Toyonari (Koka) (1885-1942) and Torii Kotondo (1900-1976).

While working at the newspaper, Shunsen began to exhibit his paintings of kabuki and literary characters. During an exhibit in 1916, the woodblock publisher Watanabe Shozaburo happened to see one of Shunsen's actor portraits, Nakamura Ganjiro as Kamiya Jihei. Watanabe was immediately impressed by the work and wanted to employ Shunsen as a print designer for his "new prints" (shin hanga). Shunsen agreed to a collaboration and Watanabe produced two actor prints from his designs in 1916 and 1917.

After 1917 Shunsen decided to pursue other opportunities, though Watanabe probably would have liked to continue their collaboration. However, in 1925 they again worked together.  Shunsen had started designing a series of 36 actor portraits for the publisher Kikuchi Yoshimaru. After the first print was completed, Kikuchi decided to turn over the project to Watanabe. This series, Shunsen nigao shū (variously translated as Thirty-six Kabuki Actors Portraits or Portraits of Actors in Various Roles or Collection of Shunsen Portraits) showcased some of Shunsen's finest kabuki designs. Watanabe lavishly produced each print in a limited edition of 150 and sold them only by subscription. The series lasted through 1929, and was followed by a supplement series of 15 actor prints produced through 1931. 

Shunsen's actor portraits were mainly in the okubi-e (large head) format which allowed him to focus on the expression and emotions of the character's face. He also designed a few bijin-ga (beautiful women) prints during the late 1920's, both with Watanabe and the publisher Kato Junji. These prints (at least those produced by Watanabe) seem rather flat in comparison to the vibrant kabuki portraits, perhaps because they are not okubi-e.

Shunsen continued to work as an artist in the kabuki theater, but did not design any other actor prints until the early 1950's. From 1951 to 1954, he collaborated with Watanabe on another series of 30 contemporary actor prints, titled Butai no sugata-e (Forms of Actors Onstage.) Like the earlier series, these designs were beautifully printed and are very expressive, especially the okubi-e portraits. However, to some critics, they are not as strikingly original as the first series, echoing the decline of the kabuki theater during that time.  While he did not produce any additional prints for Watanabe after this series, he continued to paint, produce drawings for prints and to teach until 1958.  Tragically, Shunsen and his wife lost their beloved daughter Yoshiko to pneumonia in 1958. They were unable to recover from their grief and committed double suicide on the family grave in Tokyo.

Signatures and Seals of the Artist (a partial list)





春仙筆 / 年玉

Shunsen hitsu / within toshidama cartouche

春仙寫かく / 年玉

Shunsen shakaku  / within toshidama cartouche


Shunsen sha


Shunsen ga / paulownia pattern seal


Shunsen ga / paulownia pattern seal

春仙 / 春仙

Shunsen / Shunsen seal

春仙絵 / 名取 

Shunsen-e / Natori seal

 春仙 / 名取 

Shunsen / Natori seal

春仙 / unread

Shunsen / unread seal

 春仙 / 春 Shunsen / Shun seal

春仙画 / 春 仙

Shunsen ga / shun and sen seals

 春仙 / 春 Shunsen / Shun seal

春仙 / unread

Shunsen / unread seal

名取春仙画 / unread

Natori Shunsen ga / unread seal

春仙 / 春仙

Shunsen / Shunsen seal

黛紫洞春仙画 / unread

Taishidō Shunsen ga / unread seal

梶蔦斎春仙画 / 春

Bichōsai Shunsen ga / Shun seal

梶蔦斎春僊 / 春仙

Bichōsai Shunsen ga / Shunsen seal

梶蔦斎春僊 / 春仙 

Bichōsai Shunsen ga / paulownia pattern seal

黛子洞春仙 / 春仙

Taishidō Shunsen / Shunsen seal


Seishite Shunsen paulownia pattern seal

倣広重図春仙 / 春仙

Hiroshige no zu ni naraite Shunsen / Shunsen seal

(Shunsen imitating Hiroshige)



(artist's seal of approval)

Kana taken from website of Japan Arts Council:

黛子洞春仙 ( たいしどうしゅんせん )Taishidō Shunsen

梶蔦斎春仙 (びちょうさいしゅんせん Bichōsai Shunsen

梶蔦斎春僊 ( びちょうさいしゅんせん )Bichōsai Shunsen

倣広重図春仙 ( ひろしげのずにならいてしゅんせん )Hiroshige no zu ni naraite Shunsen

青紫亭春仙 ( せいしていしゅんせん )Seishite Shunsen


Catalogue Raisonne – Ukiyoe Kabuki Gi Han Ga: Shunsen Natori (The Skill of Natori Shunsen in Kabuki Prints), Kushigata Municipal Shunsen Museum, Kushigata, Japan, 1991

Dramatic Impressions: Japanese Theatre Prints from the Gilbert Luber Collection, Chance, Frank L. & Davis, Julie Nelson, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007    

last revision: 11/19/2023

Prints in Collection

click on thumbnail for print details

Prints Appearing in the magazine Shin Nigao