The technique of printing with blocks of wood has a long history in Japan. From the 8th through the 16th centuries, it was primarily used for the mass production of Buddhist texts and icons. By the mid-17th century, books and single-sheet prints, often featuring scenes of city life based on contemporary literature, were produced to satisfy the demand of a growing and wealthy urban class for arts that reflected their interests and activities.
Innovative compositions, an interest in psychological states, and a fascinating interplay of social commentary, satire, and caricature characterize Japanese woodblock prints produced in the last decade of the 18th century. These tendencies are evident in the large number of prints produced in the "big head picture" or okubi-e format during this period. Concentrating on the faces and upper bodies of their subjects, "big head" prints present well-known actors and courtesans (as well as anonymous subjects) in an arresting and intimate fashion.