Munehiro, The Five Elements - Fire

Hasegawa Munehiro (active 1848 - 1867) An Untitled Series of the Five Elements: Fire, 1860. Deluxe Chuban.

Click here for a full-size image.

Little is known of Munehiro; he was an Osaka artist, a pupil of Hasegawa Sadanobu (from whom he took his first name) and he produced a small number of single and multi-sheet theatre prints. His output was specialist, his work characterised by high quality and deluxe finishes. This piece is from a series of five, presumably, of which only one other is known. The full title includes the specific information that the series introduces the Summer Programme at the Chicugo Theatre of 1860.

This very fine and richly embellished print, shows one of the plays of the 1860 season, paired with one of the five elements. This visual trickery, called mitate, was a hangover from the 1840’s when censorship forced artists to make apparently worthy themes the  subject matter  of their prints. In this case Munehiro pairs the story of the Ghost of Koheiji with the element of fire. The play, A Mysterious Tale of Revenge at Asaka Marsh, was hugely popular and it turns out was based on certain historical facts from the seventeenth century. The tragedy here is of the impoverished kabuki actor, Kohala Koheiji. He was so poor that he had the perfect demeanour to play ghost characters, which were the only roles he was offered. His wife conspired with her lover to have him killed in the watery marshes of Asaka. In true kabuki horror fashion, Koheiji returned from the dead and haunted the two lovers until he finally took their child from them… pictured here, and drove them insane.

Hokusai, made one of his most famous compositions based on this play and the story is unusual in having a male ghost for the lead. This show is about male tragedy and this, the story of a man who fails drastically to look after his family and is killed by his wife as a consequence, must have sent shock waves through male working class kabuki fans. The connection with fire is through the ghostly flame that hovers between the two characters. These 'fox fires' were used in prints to denote a supernatural occurrence and derive from the marsh gas fires that were in turn attributed to ghostly foxes. The connection therefore is from the ghost in the play, to the Asaka Marsh, via the lit gas plumes.

It is a very nice print indeed, colour, impression and condition are all fine.

25 x 18 cm.