Taiso Yoshitoshi (1839 - 1892) Ichikawa Kodanji as the Magician Hokkesan Kesataro, Oban. 1862
Here is the very important early portrait of Ichikawa Kodanji by the great Meiji print artist Yoshitoshi from 1862/1863. Yoshitoshi’s earliest works are recorded from around 1860 and his work began to be known, theatre portraits mainly, from 1862. By 1863 there are records of up to 44 mainly kabuki prints like this one, not all of them recorded.
This print then, comes two years after the death of his teacher Kuniyoshi and it bears the hall marks of Kuniyoshi’s drawing style, even though the subject matter that Yoshitoshi was obliged to produce was not favoured by his teacher. This print of the magician Hokkesan Kesataro is a slightly unsettling design. The actor sits uncomfortably, as if for an early portrait photograph… indeed the print prefigures Japanese theatre photographs in its posture, cropping and posing. The composition recalls European portrait making and it is hard to break away from that convention when looking at it… that European eye that I discuss in the Gallery essay that accompanies this show. The problem with that of course is the extraordinary grimace, the mie, that the sitter holds which in the European context looks like the actor has a disfigurement. It is a mis-match, really. The mie is the dramatic expression held by a kabuki actor at the climax of an emotional scene; it seems incongruous to our eyes when seen in this pose. Nevertheless, there is Kodanji, the hair which identifies the character and is so stylised is a rigid hair piece… a wig, but an elaborate construction that was more like a helmet and the sides of it are tightly inscribed on the print and further inscribed with thin lines in a lighter black. I have shown a photograph of a later performance of the part by Nakamura Fukusuke IV from the mid 1880’s. It’s a fantastic opportunity to see the scale of creative input by the woodblock artists and carvers.
It’s all there… the crazy wig, the kimono and the sensational make up. The photograph reveals costume similarities, the chain mail which Yoshitoshi stylises in the ukiyo-e convention, the stormy sea which is visible on the left of Fukusuke’s sleeve and on the right of Kodanji’s and the remaining floral motif. How much more dramatic, theatrical and imposing is Yoshitoshi’s portrait! The studio shot is set against a plain backdrop, Yoshitoshi poses his actor against the joshiki-maku, the kabuki backdrop. The striped kabuki joshiki-maku is made by sewing together fabric of three colors: black, moegi (dark green) and kaki-iro (yellowish brown). This design symbolises kabuki. The joshiki-maku supposedly originates from the re-purposed awning of a shogun war ship.
The portrait depicts the character Hokkesan Kesataro in a very particular type of dance drama called a danmari. In the Danmari, the actors assemble in order to tussle over an object of value… a sword or a scroll, or an heirloom such as a helmet. In the case of this dance, Miyajima no Danmari, a group of historical and fictional characters are in dispute over a magic scroll. The chief suspect for the theft of the scroll turns out to be a prostitute called Ukifune. As the lights go out, in true pantomime style, Ukifune transforms into the magician Kesataro, appearing at the end of the long stage extension, the hanamichi. Uniquely, his lower half is still dressed as a woman and his upper half as a male. The actor must then leave the stage using the gait of a woman and the ferocity of the man - a famously difficult act!
It appears from the sleeve of this portrait and from a remarkably similar print of the same performance by Kunisada, from his 1863 series A Contest of Magical Scenes by Toyokuni ("Toyokuni kigo kijutsu kurabe") (shown below), that the final dramatic scene takes place as the actor supposedly appears not only at the end of the hanamichi, but on a rock in the sea, presumably out of reach! The performance was clearly a major event in the kabuki calendar, as both Kunisada and Kunichika also produced prints of Ichikawa Kodanji acting this role, from the 8th lunar month of 1862 at the Moritaza.
This is a terrific print, it sits on the cusp of the decline of ukiyo-e, the introduction of photography and the political upheavals of the 1860’s that contributed so much to those challenges.