Kabuki actor prints were one of several artistic genres revitalized during the shin hanga movement. The tradition of depicting kabuki actors in woodblock prints dates back to the 17th century. Ukiyo-e artists like Toyokuni and Kunisada designed kabuki-themed woodblock prints as promotional material for specific kabuki plays. These prints were created as inexpensive souvenirs to be enjoyed by the masses and then discarded. Ukiyo-e artists often depicted multiple actors in a dramatic scene from a play, sometimes using a triptych or larger format to show the entire stage. Other ukiyo-e prints portrayed a single actor in a dramatic pose, or mie, with exaggerated facial expressions that were characteristic of kabuki drama. During the 18th and 19th century, many kabuki actors were treated like celebrities, and the common people competed with one another to purchase woodblock print portraits of the most popular actors in stage costume.
By the beginning of the 20th century, the tradition of actor prints had nearly disappeared. The kabuki theater, once a favorite form of entertainment for the lower classses, had gained respectability during the Meiji period. The emperor Meiji was the first Japanese ruler to attend a kabuki performance. The popular Kabuki-za theater was built during his reign in the trendy and expensive Ginza district, as were several other kabuki theaters. As a result, kabuki dramas were more heavily patronized by the wealthy elite, but they lost some of their younger audience. During the Taisho period (1912-1926), many of the urban Japanese youth were drawn away from kabuki to more modern forms of entertainment, especially Western imports like cinema and baseball.
One notable effort to revive interest in actor prints was the publication of 'Shin Nigao' (New Portraits) magazine in 1915. This art magazine was a collaboration among several Japanese artists, including Natori Shunsen, Ishii Hakutei, and Yamamura Toyonari. The general purpose of 'Shin Nigao' was to advertise for the kabuki theater, but it also gave the artists a chance to express themselves in new ways. Each issue featured 14 or 15 small woodblock prints that were designed by various artists and carved by Igami Bonkotsu, a master artisan who was a friend of Ishii Hakutei. Most of the prints included in 'Shin Nigao' are portraits based on simple line drawings. A few of these small prints were used as the basis for similar but more detailed shin hanga produced by these same artists in later years. Although 'Shin Nigao' attracted some interest, production of the magazine ended after only five issues.
One of the people who undoubtedly did notice 'Shin Nigao' was the publisher Watanabe Shozaburo. In that same year, Watanabe was just beginning to recruit artists to design his 'new prints' (or shin hanga). He wanted to include actor prints along with the other traditional genres of bijin-ga prints, bird-and-flower prints, and landscape prints. Watanabe's first collaboration in the actor print genre was with the artist Natori Shunsen. He and Shunsen worked together in 1916 on a print of Nakamura Ganjiro as Kamiya Jihei, and again in 1917 on a second print of Onoe Baiko as Otomi. Shunsen went on to pursue other work after his second print design, although he resumed working with Watanabe again in 1925. In the meantime, Watanabe worked with the artist Yamamura Toyonari on a series called Flowers of the Theatrical World.
While ukiyo-e prints had often focused on groups of actors performing a particular kabuki drama, the new shin hanga actor prints were primarily portraits of single actors in the large head style (okubi-e). In contrast to the flat, stylized portraits of ukiyo-e, shin hanga actor prints utilized shading to give dimension to the actors' faces. Like bijin-ga prints, many shin hanga actor prints were lavishly printed with pearlescent mica backgrounds and special embossed areas. These new actor prints were no longer published as ephemera for mass consumption, but instead were fine art objects, often made in limited numbers and sold exclusively by subscription.