Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) Pictorial Mirror Stands Matched with Thirty Selected Flowers: Akitsushima, 1845.
This is an interesting print for all sorts of reasons. First of all, the subject matter and the odd mirror frame. In 1842 a series of instructions were issued to censor Japanese prints. These included a price ceiling of 16 mon, no compositions should exceed three sheets and there should be no more than seven colours per sheet. These were intended to be moral reforms to reduce the popularity of the decadent arts. In 1843, the ban extended to any likeness of a kabuki actor, dancer, women who worked in the red light district, even biographies of faithful women. The edicts effectively closed printmaking as an art form. Punishment took the form of heavy fines, handcuffing or house arrest. Kuniyoshi himself was harangued for producing overt puzzle and riddle pictures that seemed to satirise the government however obliquely.
By 1846, restrictions were eased and actors were allowed to be represented as long as their names and the name of the character was not printed. This series with its seemingly odd title is probably the first actor likeness to be printed after the relaxation of the ban… nearly a year before the official lifting of the restriction. This makes the series of great historical importance. There are sixteen prints in the series of which only one, that of Danjuro VIII can be positively identified. Identification of this print and the remaining others in the series has to be done now, (as it was in 1845 by eager audiences) by association.
Contemporary prints from either before or after the ban allow us to make an accurate guess that the portrait here is that of Akitsushima Kuniemon, a top sumo wrestler known as a sekitori who performs in one of the two highest professional divisions from the play Sekitori Nidai no Shobuzuke. The real subject here though is the actor. Likely I think to be Kataoka Nizaemon VIII, it could also be Ichimura Uzaemon XII . Audiences would have known straight away, just as we could spot a likeness of David Beckham or Brad Pitt.
Kuniyoshi has furnished his audience with more clues: the title can be read in several ways. Hence the title, Mirror Stands Matched with 30 Selected Flowers or Sibling Pictures: 30 Selected Trees and Flowers. The principle is matching or reflecting… the idea that the one thing matches or stands in for another thing. The idea of the mirror here is also several fold. The mirror’s image also ‘stands in’ for reality, it is an allusion and in Edo culture, a powerful and mystical one at that. Japanese mirrors were made from metal, right up until the end of the nineteenth century. Bronze mirrors were commonplace and they were accorded superstition and respect. Some so called magical mirrors contain secret images within the highly polished surface, these ‘magic mirrors’ add a further layer of allusion to suggestion here that the image is standing in for its real, concealed meaning.
The mirror itself is resting in a lacquered stand, the black frame and that is shrouded in various layers of patterned cloth. The actor is presumably backstage… a popular and thrilling thought for the kabuki fan, regarding himself in a mirror.
The thistle that surrounds the picture frame is there to indicate a specific quality or allusion to either the actor or the role. The thistle is traditionally associated with the character of Seikichi, but also with Uzaemon’s portrayal of him… the allusion here is either to the role of the character or to Uzaemon’s famous portrayal… it is possible but unlikely that this character is Sekichi of course! The most likely role which most people now agree on is that of the top sumo wrestler Akitsushima Kuniemon. The play, Sekitori Nidai no Shobuzuke is a piece of moral dilemma - Akitsushima Kuniemon is obliged to throw a sumo bout in order to rescue his partner from prostitution. A familiar kabuki tale!
Combining these complex threads tells us that the picture represents a well known actor, playing the recognisable role of a conflicted sumo wrestler, the actor is off picture but his reflection, his surrogate, is surrounded by some clues that tell of his other self.