Kunichika, 100 Roles of Baiko - the Englishman Spencer

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) One Hundred Roles of Baiko: Onoe Kikugoro V as the Englishman Spencer, 1894. Oban. This Month's Featured Print.

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Well, this selection is about the idea of change in Japanese culture, as reflected in the art of the nineteenth century. This print from one of the great and defiant late series by Kunichika could not be a better demonstration of manic and cataclysmic upheaval. Kunichika was an aficionado and intimate of all the great kabuki actors of the day. The actor Onoe Kikugoro V was such a friend.  He was a hugely successful actor who took the stage name Baiko from the pen name of his ancestor Onoe Kikugoro, who died in 1783. In 1893 Kunichika was commissioned by the publisher Fukuda Kumajiro to produce one hundred prints celebrating the roles of the great actor. The series was printed on the finest paper and used all of the deluxe techniques available to artists at the time: the surfaces are sprinkled with mica and lavishly embossed and burnished with deep reflective blacks and shomenzuri patterns.

Whilst some of the prints cling to the traditional memes and roles of the kabuki stage, many were new plays written to stay in touch with the convulsions of the Meiji era. None could be more apposite than this. The web page entry on this print by The Lavenberg Collection of Japanese Prints is so comprehensive that I will only extract the initial description but do urge the reader to take the time to read the account of Spencer’s ascent and subsequent descent by parachute reproduced from the Japan Weekly Mail.

The actor Onoe Kikugoro V (1844-1903) as the English balloonist Percival Spencer (1864-1913) in the dance play Riding the Famous Hot-Air Balloon (Fūsen Nori Uwasa Takadono), staged as the final piece (ōgiri) on the January 1891 bill at the Kabuki-za.  The insert in the top left shows the actor Onoe Ushinosuke II, the son of Onoe Kikugorō V, who also played the English balloonist in the play, in a supporting capacity.  The play, written by Kawatake Mokuami ( (1816-1893), was based upon the balloon ascent, and descent by parachute, in Ueno Park by the English balloonist Percival Spencer in November 1891.  (See the news stories of the ascent, below.)

In the play Kikugorō addressed the audience in English while suspended from the theatre’s rigging: “Ladies and gentlemen.  I have been up three thousand feet.  Looking down, I was pleased to see you in this Kabuki-za.  Thanks [sic] you. Ladies and gentlemen, with all my heart, I thank you.” The play was enthusiastically received during thirty-three-day run.”

Ueno Park is illustrated in this online exhibition in a print by Hiroshige III.

The print is in fine condition except for some faint fox-marks, colour and impression are also fine, full size, with margins and publisher’s information. Print mounted on Japanese album backing. A great and unusual, if comical image, that perhaps more than many others makes commentary upon the emerging Japanese state in the late nineteenth century.

Published by Fukuda Kumajiro.

25.5 x 36 cm.