Nobukatsu, Onoe Baiko as Kan Shojo in Act V of Suguawa Denju Tenarai Kagami

Nobukatsu (active 1824 - 1841) Onoe Baiko (Onoe Kikugoro III) as Kan Shojo in Act V of Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami, 1830.  Oban.

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This is a terrific and extremely rare print. Nobukatsu was a pupil of Sadamasu, whose career as a print designer ended with the promulgation of the Tenpo Reform edicts which prohibited the illustration of actors, theatre productions or roles in plays. As we have seen above, some of the bolder artists (especially in Edo where the reforms were not as baldly executed) found ways via the analogous mitate, to get around the worst of the restrictions. In Osaka, most artists and publishers were put out of business; the second flowering - the so called Period IV - saw the mannerisms and superb quality of  prints by artists like Sadamasu and Hirosada in the 1840’s.

This is a famous actor, early in his career, in an equally famous role, that of Kan Shojo in the five act drama,  Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami.  Kan Shojo is the stage name given to an actual noble of the 9th century, Sugawara Michizane. There are many stories attached to Michizane, perhaps the most famous of which is the tale of the village school - Michizane has sent his son to an anonymous village school through fear of assassins. His loyal retainer, Matsuo, famously allowed his own son to be beheaded by the assassins in order to protect that of his master’s.  This is one of the most moving and popular dramas in the kabuki theatre.

Henri Joly’s 1908 book of Japanese legend contains a long account of Kan Shojo in entry number 908. The relevant section for the current print is as follows:

Tokihira's hatred pursued him even in his retreat, where he sent a man to murder him, who was killed by Umewo, one of the retainers of the ex-minister. Then Tokihira decided to destroy the son of Michizane, Kanshusai, who was in the school of Genzo at Kyoto. He sent two of his retainers, Gemba and Matsuo (brother of Umewo), to demand of Genzo the head of the boy, but the head of Matsuo's son was given them instead. Matsuo had sent his own boy to be sacrificed. Tokihira and his accomplice, Kiyotsura, were killed in a thunderstorm, and since then the legend has shown Michizane as Thunder God, avenging himself upon his life-long enemies by striking them with lightning, a power which popular legends also gave later to Yoshihira.

Nobukatsu depicts Kan Shojo as a Thunder God, striking his enemies, a scene from the final act of the kabuki play about his life and times. This is an outstanding print, somewhat famous and always very expensive when it (rarely) comes up for sale. The quality of the drawing, composition and printing are simply outstanding. I think that this is a quite exceptional piece of Osaka School printmaking, rare and desirable.

Colour and impression fine, backed. An identical copy is in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Publisher Tenmaya Kihei (Tenki).

25 x 37 cm.