Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) Twenty-four Selected Paragons of Filial Piety: Actor Bando Shuka I, 1855.
My fascination with this print is twofold… the obvious delight of holding and seeing first hand a rare print, freighted with a culture that no longer exists - the signs and symbols of Edo, saying goodbye to itself - and the great intellectual beauty of a scene that reminds me of one of the high points of the Italian Renaissance.
Above top is the print by Kuniyoshi… it is part of a series of prints celebrating the piety of twenty-four famed children and their selfless devotion to alleviate the suffering of their parents. The book from which the series is derived, entitled The Twenty-four Paragons of Filial Piety was written by the Chinese scholar Guo Jujing during the Yuan Dynasty. His pen-name was Yizi, and he is known in Japan as Kaku Kyokei. This series pairs scenes from kabuki plays with one of the twenty-four paragons of filial piety suggested by the scene. It is listed as number 170 in Kuniyoshi by Basil William Robinson (Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1961). Kuniyoshi made several series devoted to these often risible stories, but this one is the only one which so clearly uses actors and theatrical roles as part of the design. Interestingly, Kuniyoshi resorted to western techniques and drawing styles for all of these series, although it remains unclear why.
I have paired the print above with an apparently unconnected painting by the Renaissance artist Piero della Francesca, painted around 1450. What connects the two images is the imposition of an altered state. In Kuniyoshi’s print the following story is illustrated in the upper portion of the sheet, a space delineated by a border of cut flowers:
In this case the virtuous Emperor Yao was seeking an heir to his kingdom and was told about a young man, Taishun, who was terribly abused by his stepmother’s family yet continued to tend the fields tirelessly and singlehandedly. He is assisted in this by the elephants and the birds:
The elephants come down from the mountains to plough the furrows for this young man; in the Spring you can see them line up and use their tusks to dig the earth. In the Summer the crows and magpies flock down to pull up the weeds with their beaks. Nature itself approves of his righteous attitude, especially in the face of hardship, as in the case of his impossible family situation.
The Emperor was so moved by the story that he granted the kingdom to the young man.
Kuniyoshi has drawn the upper portion in a manner derived from western, Italianate design. Everything is mannered: the foliate leaves of the border; the clouds… borrowed surely from Titian; the trees…mannered styling that could be seen in a Claude or Poussin; and the boy, a cherubic Western child, chubby like a putti from a baroque altar. Kuniyoshi has realised the story of the dedicated son in a different idiom, in order to show that it is a myth - no one believed that these tales had any foundation in truth and they were frequently satirised.
Looking again at the Piero, the left hand side of this extraordinary, unfathomable painting shows the flagellation of Christ. On the foreground side of the painting, three figures in contemporary costume discuss, politics and philosophy, perhaps. Piero depicts the other world of the Bible story: Pontius Pilate is seen seated at the scene of Christ’s torture. The house of Pilate is scrupulously reconstructed from sources that were trusted at the time. The perspective is of course a masterpiece of ingenuity and mathematics… so good in fact that the building and the floor can be measured and reconstructed in model form in its entirety. There is a twist... the lighting for this supernatural scene is different from the real world outside. The shadows fall in the opposite direction and the perspectives of each scene are cunningly, slightly different. What appears to be a perfectly readable tableaux uses style to differentiate the reality of Christ and his time with the reality of Piero’s own time.
In Kuniyoshi’s print, the foreground figure (who, coincidentally bears a striking resemblance to the figures in the Piero), is in fact an actor… Bando Shuka I, in a role as a Buddhist, hence the shakujo staff he is holding. (The jingling of the staff's rings is used to warn small sentient beings (i.e. insects) to move from the carrier's path and avoid being accidentally trodden on. Ringing also is used to alert the faithful that there is a monk within earshot in need of alms.) The likelihood is that this mitate represents the actor (Bando) in the role of Jizo, the Bodhisattva of children… the connection with the child Taishun being obvious.
Bando Shuka wears the heavily embroidered robes representing the god of thunder, Raijin, seen on the left sleeve with red face and a circlet of drums/thunder clouds around him; lightening flashes around and the waves of the sea are represented as foam flecked crests in the manner of Hokusai. The brilliance of the print lies in the foot of a stage hand, just visible bottom right. The sandalled toes poke from beneath the elephant costume, further emphasising the distinct realities of the performance pictured in the foreground and the legend in the background, where the rear view of the elephant is shown to the correct scale, engaged in ploughing the fields whilst the birds flutter around sowing seeds.
I suspect in fact that Kunyoshi was aware that with this subject matter he could get his western drawing style that he loved so much past the censors and indeed actor portraits as well. The authorities were especially keen on the Twenty-four Paragons of Filial Piety, they represented all of the values that the crumbling administration admired the most. The gift to us is this delightful, and intriguing print… beautiful as a work in its own right but also filled with great complexity and depth.