Kunisada, Scenes from Eight Dog Heroes of Satomi

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Scenes from Eight Dog Heroes of Satomi (Satomi Hakkenshi no hitori) 1850. Oban Diptych.

A terrific oban diptych from an unusual and scarce diptych series on the theme of the Hakkenden…  that strange, disturbing story of the eight half canine progeny of a princess.

Originally a novel which took thirty years to complete, it was quickly turned into a popular kabuki play. The complex plot centres on the eight offspring of a supernatural marriage between a princess and her father’s dog. Shamed at the birth of her children, she kills herself and the eight beads of her rosary, each representing a Buddhist virtue, become crystal orbs and disperse, the children being reborn to normal mothers sixteen years later. The plot twists and turns as the eight brothers become acquainted as adults.

I am especially pleased at being able to show another example of the enigmatic, upside-down, figure first drawn by the English visionary and engraver William Blake. Blake made various studies and illustrations of the figure of The Simoniac Pope 1824–7 from Dante’s Inferno XIX, 31–126, showing the punishment of the Simoniacs in the third trench of the eighth circle. Virgil clasps Dante to carry him away from the wrath of Pope Nicolas III, whose punishment for simony was to be suspended head downwards in a well of fire until replaced by another Pope guilty of the same sin. It is likely that either engravings of this or similar western archetypes reached Japan and were copied into the vocabulary of Japanese print artists. An essay on the Upside Down Man can be found at the Toshidama Gallery Eblogger.

The enigmatic figure crops up in many, unrelated Japanese prints. The use of the figure is not confined to a particular character as is often the case and yet it always sits uncomfortably (as in this case) with the drawing and visual space of the rest of the print.

Kunisada represents two of the 'dog heroes' seen in a kabuki play, (Satomi Hakkenshi no hitori). There is no mention in the print itself of the third upside down figure. On the left is Ichikawa Kodanji IV as Inukawa Shosuke Yoshito and on the right the actor Ichimura Uzaemon XIII as Inuta Kobungo Yasuyori . A bold print from an unusual series. Colour, impression and condition very good with some fraying to the edges. Embossing to the robes.  Very delicate shading to the cartouches.

36 x 50.5 cm.