Kabuki, literally 'extraordinary thing', with connotations of the degenerate or the unorthodox, emerged as a popular theatre of Japan in the early seventeenth century. The source of the new theatre was the provocative dancing of the shrine priestess, Okuni, and her female dancers.
Kabuki was held in disdain by the samurai and noble classes, who preferred the classical Noh drama as the appropriate expression of upper-class elegance and good taste. While actors of Noh drama held samurai status, kabuki actors were social outcasts. Patronized by the newly affluent merchant class, however, kabuki theatre quickly rose in popularity and rich merchants sponsored kabuki productions.
'Actor prints' served both to advertise and to commemorate kabuki performance. The most popular actors had superstar status and attracted large, enthusiastic fan clubs. Prints would be issued to coincide with a performance and purchased by fans. The kabuki fan was a serious connoisseur, not only of the theatre but of the actor prints as well. Although these prints were inexpensive, deluxe prints employing expensive inks and extravagant embellishments were produced to satisfy the most discriminating clients.
The latest scandals, particularly those in the licensed quarters of the Yoshiwara, always fascinated Edo audience and provided raw material for the playwrights of the kabuki theatre and the makers of ukiyo-e prints. Each theatre tried to scoop the others by being the first to stage a play concerning a recent suicide or scandal. Those who could not afford to go to the pleasure quarters could experience them vicariously through a kabuki play.