Taiso Yoshitoshi (1839 - 1892) Ichimura Uzaemon as Benten Kozo Kikunosuke, 1862. Oban.
This is a tremendous Yoshitoshi theatre print. These actor portraits occur early in Yoshitoshi’s career. They are to some extent anomalous… he is not known as a kabuki artist (although some of his actor portraits are among the best of the Meiji), and this print and the forty odd other actor prints that he made in 1862 suggest that had he wished, he could have built a steady career in the tradition of Kunisada. Yoshitoshi’s training was with Kuniyoshi, the great history artist. It was social history above anything that interested Yoshitoshi. Kunichika, his colleague, would become the great and the last kabuki artist. Yoshitoshi would go on to make some of the most outstanding and daring woodblock prints of the late nineteenth century. In 1862, Yoshitoshi was out of a job and without a patron - his teacher and boss, Kuniyoshi had died the year before and the once stable country was drifting rapidly towards insurrection and revolution.
These themes would preoccupy Yoshitoshi for the rest of his career, notably in the gruesome ‘from life’ series of warrior portraits, One Hundred Selected Warriors and find grim echoes in his fascination with ghost stories and monsters. I think there’s an interesting parallel with Goya and the effect that the Peninsula Wars and his witness to atrocity had on his work… that same fascination with the grotesque and the supernatural. Perhaps indeed thinking of Yoshitoshi’s several prints of the Hag of Adachi Moor, the similar themes of witches and cannibalism in Goya’s late work is indicative of a kind of post traumatic stress suffered by both men? Jonathon Jones in fact writes in the Guardian Newspaper:
My quest to find why Goya became the darkest of all artists led me to follow in his footsteps, starting with a pilgrimage to the Principe Pio hill in Madrid. Here, on the night of 3 May 1808, Napoleon’s soldiers executed those who had participated in the previous day’s rebellion against the French occupation of their city.
The play, from which this equally bloody image is taken, Aoto Zoshi Hana no Nishikie, premiered at the Ichimura-za in Edo in 1862. It told the story of a braggart and a bandit - Benten Kozo Kikunosuke and his clumsy career in shoplifting and swindling followed by his (fantastical) suicide on the roof of a temple. In the first act, Benten disguises himself in order to steal a valuable temple burner… the remainder of the play sees him disguised as a woman attempting to steal from a shop owner in Edo. When this ploy is uncovered and he flees, he rejoins his cohorts at the river where they are surrounded by the police, Benten makes his escape to the roof of the nearby temple but is cornered. After a fight he takes his own life, expiring on the sloping tiles prior to a spectacular theatrical effect that sees the roof lift off to reveal Nippon Daemon, the bandit chief.
These dramas and novellas exemplify a fanatical curiosity among the townspeople of Edo and Osaka with bandits, hooligans and gang members. Sordid lives, consisting of murder, pickpocketing and violence, usually ending in death were taken up by playwrights and embroidered, with the addition of prostitutes with hearts of gold - and the plays, stories and books presented figures such as Benten as noble social justice warriors… taunting the now despised samurai class and the equally hated and corrupt government. The plays - and hence the woodblock prints that followed by the hundreds - bore little or no relation to the actual events nor to the characters portrayed.
Yoshitoshi uses a model by his teacher’s great rival Kunisada from 1862 as the basis for his print (above). Yoshitoshi focusses the viewer into the figure… Benten - here played by the kabuki actor Ichimura Uzaemon - filling much more of the sheet. He keeps the specific details of the actor, but Kunisada’s portrait shows Benten as desperate and expiring, Yoshitoshi shows him as heroic and brave… facing death with stoicism. Yoshitoshi turns Benten from expiring and cornered rat into something altogether more inspiring. The incidental details are the same… but Yoshitoshi simplifies them - the roof tiles become a regular pattern as does the temple decoration and we are mainly aware of the hero’s rugged, windswept beauty.