Kunisada, A Mirror of Fashionable Reflections - Nakamura Shikan IV as Soga 'Takenuki' Goro

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865)  A Mirror of Fashionable Reflections (Imayo Oshie Kagami):Nakamura Shikan IV as Soga ‘Takenuki’ Goro, 1860. Oban.

Click here for a detailed enlargement.

This is a striking and brilliant print in a style that Kunisada developed late in his career and was much imitated by other artists. The various series, of which this is the finest, portray actors in role, reflected in padded mirrors… possibly suggesting the magical transformation that took place backstage in the actor’s dressing room - hallowed ground for their legions of kabuki fans. Untangling the image is tricky, the burnished black and yellow oval is the rigid wooden mirror frame, the red and green patterns are the cloths that have been attached to its sides. The image in effect is you, the viewer, as Nakamura Shikan IV as Soga 'Takenuki' Goro, reflected back at yourself, out of the print. The mirror frame is surrounded by flecks of yellow/gold decoration and a poem by the actor, written in cursive script across the top.

The Soga brothers were an historic pair of heroes who epitomise the tragedy of the traditional Edo period Japanese male. Condemned by fate to a life (and death) spent in revenge and vendetta that they inherited and in which they played no part in creating. Duty, that over-riding responsibility deemed to define the men of feudal Japan, drove their lives, their loves and eventually their deaths… pointless, tragic and despairing. This print of 'bamboo-tugging Goro' illustrates the scene in this Spring play (yayoi kyogen) in which the dance skit Edo-ganoko ninin Dojo-ji is performed. The seal of the leading block-carver Yokokawa Takejiro appears on the print.

The story appears in the historic tale Soga monogatari, one of the most enduring folk stories of Japanese legend and frequently depicted in Japanese art.  The story was a popular subject for kabuki audiences: in 1175 Kudo Saemon Suketsune had his cousin Sukemichi assassinated in order to gain an inheritance. Eighteen years later, in 1193, Sukemichi’s two sons Juro Sukenari and Goro Tokimune revenged themselves by killing Suketsune in the course of a hunting party on Mount Fuji. Juro was killed in the fight but Goro was taken prisoner. What follows is the crux of the play’s tragedy for Japanese audiences. Although the shogun, Minamoto no Yoritomo sympathised with the brothers' loyalty and was inclined to pardon Goro, he was persuaded by Suketsune’s son to execute him. The conflict between the duty of the sons and the authority of the state remains a vital key to understanding both bushido (the way of the samurai) and the feudal system of the shogunate. The portrait of Goro is particularly expressive and striking with stylised red make-up picked out around the eyes. His expression is subtly captured as if looking out of the palimpsest frame of the mirror.

Other copies of this print are in the collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge,  and the British Museum, London

The print is in fine condition apart from some slight overall trimming; colour and impression are fine. Strong burnishing to some areas of the black.

Published by Shorin-do, block cutter Yokokawa Horitake.

24 x 35.5 cm.