Kunimasu, Actor in the Role of Kurobei Danshichi

Utagawa Kunimasu (Sadamasu) (active 1834 - 1854) Actor in the Role of Kurobei Danshichi, c1840’s. Deluxe Chuban.

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This is a fine print by the highly regarded Osaka artist, Kunimasu, formerly Sadamasu. Not too much is known about him, but it is widely considered that he was a wealthy man - possibly a merchant or shipbuilder - who was capable of funding his art career by other means. He was the teacher of the great Hirosada and a pupil of Kunisada in Edo, changing his name when Kunisada changed his own name to Toyokuni III.

Here we have a bold portrait of an actor in the role of Kurobei Danshichi. Danshichi is a real Edo everyman… a fishmonger, Danshichi is the archetype of the Osaka otokodate. The role was based on a real man, a fishmonger in the city of Sakai, who killed somebody in the middle of winter in 1697. The dead body was hidden in the snow and discovered in Spring, after the melting of the snow. This event was dramatised for the first time in 1698 by the Kamigata star Kataoka Nizaemon I, who played the leading role of Danshichi. Then, half a century later, Danshichi became the hero of Natsu Matsuri Naniwa Kagami in 1745. It contains the most famous  and spectacular murder scene in kabuki - that is, the murder of Mikawaya Giheiji by his son-in-law Danshichi.

In the numerous plays and dances, Danshichi remains the desperate man: here is a character who haplessly tries to do the right thing but for whom the fates, the authorities, other people, his rivals, his employers and his family are continually frustrating him. He is an emblem of frustration and of plans gone wrong. This is why he is such an Edo everyman. His travails are those of the desperate urban dweller, scrabbling for money to pay the rent, desperate to find love, family and stability in a rat-race city where there is not enough of anything to go round.

Kunimasu pictures the loner in 'The Night Murder Scene' from the play, The Summer Festival like an animal at bay, trapped and isolated in a dramatic darkness, a bull waiting to charge. So many (especially the Osaka prints which contain more pathos) of the prints in this show, picture the protagonist as isolated, against the world and this is exactly how these young men must have felt. What is strange to our minds, is that these frankly terrifying characters… murderers, bandits, suicides, gangsters and extortionists should have been heroes in the eyes of the mainly middle class populace. This print is fairly closely influenced by Hokuei’s print of the same subject from 1832. The actor Arashi Rikan’s handwritten verse claims that: The young bamboo does not feel the weight of the rain. Ironic since Danshichi has just murdered his father in law after enduring a lifetime of taunts. 

This is an excellent print. the composition, colour, and impression are all fine. Exceptionally rich velvety blacks. An outstanding impression, deeply incised.

25.5 x 18.5 cm.