More prints depicting actors of the kabuki theatre were produced in the Edo period (1603-1868) than all other subjects combined. The beginning of the 18th century saw the popularity of kabuki theatre expanding to the society at large. The dramatic growth in number, variety, and quality of actor prints (yakusha-e) issued during these decades are proof of this trend, as consumers of the prints sought souvenirs of performances they had attended or dreamed of attending.
Katsukawa school became one of the leading producers for prints depicting kabuki actors, alongside the earlier established Torii school. While the latter focused on more stereotypical representations of actors without any particular features that made them stand out, Katsukawa school pioneered the portrayal of individual actors, not only in their stage roles, but also backstage and even in private life. Many of these prints allowed fans to glimpse their favourite actors in their dressing rooms, in conversation with one another and with costumers, wig-makers and others who supported their stage performances.
The most prominent artist and leader was Shunsho Katsukawa (1726-1792), who adopted the name of his teacher, Shunsui Katsukawa (a.c.1740s-1760s). He popularised a more realistic style of representation that enabled audiences to identify with subjects. His yakusha-e in the narrow hosoban format could often be combined into multi-sheet series, giving magnificent expression to the whole breadth of the stage. Other artists of the school such as Shuncho Katsukawa (act. 1780-1800) also distinguished themselves in other subjects such as bijinga (pictures of beautiful women), shunga (erotic prints), and hashira-e (pillar prints).
Shunsho trained many artists including his son Shunko (1743-1812), Shun’ei (c.1762-1819), and even the young Hokusai Katsushika (1760-1849). Around 1800, however, the Utagawa school rose to prominence, replacing the Katsukawa in producing the most popular actor portraits.