Kunisada, Ichikawa Kodanji as Nikki Danjo from Toyokuni's Caricatures

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Ichikawa Kodanji as Nikki Danjo from Toyokuni's Caricatures (Toyokuni Manga zue), 1860. Oban.

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Well, the object in this print is clearly the katana, the sword. People in the west always refer to the ‘samurai sword’ whereas it should correctly be called the katana. They are fearsome things and when used in the manner illustrated they could easily split a man’s head in two in a single clean cut. The injuries inflicted by these sophisticated weapons would have been simply horrific. The sharpness of the folded steel blades is legendary and not to be exaggerated. The katana is characterised by its distinctive appearance: a curved, single-edged blade as in this print, with a circular or squared guard and long grip to accommodate two hands. The exceptionally strong, sharp blade was a 14th century innovation, generally thought to be a response to the thick boiled leather armour of the Mongol raiders.

Really a great print from one of Kunisada’s finest series. The highly desirable and admired, Toyokuni's Caricatures (Toyokuni Manga zue)was one of the later series designed by Kunisada. Horst Graebner describes it thus: A very fine series designed in the years 1859, 1860 and 1861. Split into two parts. One with actor bust portraits and the second with Kabuki scenes. But it is exactly the same title.  By the 1850’s, the woodblock print industry in Edo was in full swing. Publishers and artists were trying to outdo each other with the fineness and extravagance of production and technique. Series such as this used layer upon layer of ink to produce deep and iridescent colours. Special effects such as mica and embossing became commonplace and only the best block cutters were used.

Prints from this series are really dazzling as a result. By now the craze for kabuki was so great that it was difficult to satisfy the market for original images. As a  consequence, imaginary roles were invented… well known actors were imagined into roles that they might never have performed. These lavish ‘fan pictures’ echoed their counterparts in Osaka for extravagance and intent and are deeply satisfying to hold and to enjoy.

Danjo is the anti-hero of the play Meiboku Sendai Hagi, which involves the tale of a palace intrigue and real events involving the Date clan of Sendai during the 1660’s, although because of censorship over historic subject matter in the theatre, names, dates and details were changed. The child Tsuruchiyo has become head of the clan. He is kept in the women’s quarters and looked after by a nurse maid (Masaoka) for fear of assassination. The palace chatelaine and her brother Nikki Danjo plot to kill the young prince. In a moving scene Masaoka’s young son is killed in error but such is her devotion that she shows no emotion and continues the fiction that it is in fact Tsuruchiyo who lies dead. As a result she is handed a scroll with the names of the conspirators. Her true loyalty is finally discovered and a fight ensues which sees a gigantic rat appear on stage and run off with the scroll in its teeth.

The final scene is a classic of kabuki drama. A servant spots the rat and attacks it; it escapes but dramatically re-emerges through a trapdoor in the hanamichi (the stage extension into the theatre audience) in the true form of Nikki Danjo and carrying the scroll in his mouth. He exits the stage as if walking magically on clouds.

This is a very popular subject in ukiyo-e. There are many prints of Nikki Danjo, dressed in grey, floating on a cloud emanating from a giant rat. Here the focus is on the actor and the traditional props are absent.

A fine print in fine condition from a very fine series. Rich, thick layers of ink give this an almost 3-dimensional quality.  An incredibly sharp, near-perfect impression, the key-block lines are deeply incised. Burnishing and shomen-zuri to the black of the robes, mica still clinging to the midnight blue background. An outstanding print. Trimmed to the image.

Published by Uoya Eikichi.

25 x 37 cm.