Kunichika, Fashionable Modern Clothing - Nakamura Shikan IV as Akechi, backstage

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) Fashionable Modern Clothing (Tosei gata zokui zoroi): Nakamura Shikan IV as Akechi, Backstage, 1885. Oban.

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One of the great series by Kunichika, the last of the great theatre artists of the kabuki stage. With the death of Kunichika and his friend and colleague, the actor Ichikawa Danjuro IX, the art of the Yakusha-e (theatre print), effectively died also. That end was just over a decade away when this great print was made. The actor here is not Danjuro, but the famous star, Nakamura Shikan IV. The role, for what it matters as far as this fan portrait is concerned, is that of the medieval war lord, Akechi Mitsuhide.

The print is quite mysterious though. To the uninitiated, the convention of portraying actors in mirrors might not be immediately obvious. It’s a good attempt by Kunichika, who after all grew up in  a world without glass mirrors… here he has adopted western means of portraying mirror glass. The figure of Nakamura is not reflected in the mirror though, and this lends the print a strange quality: the actor’s forearm and hand extend beyond the confines of the frame - his hand clutches a tobacco pipe - and the actor, whilst we are told he is playing the part of the war lord is not, in fact, in role, but is dressed in a geometric kimono; the ‘fashionable modern clothing’ of the series title.

Baffling, even if you have some knowledge of the genre; an actor not in role, despite the title… a mirror that doesn’t reflect… a title about modern clothing when there is virtually none to be seen, and in the background a sponsor’s advertisement for saki! That is the over large calligraphy behind the mirror frame.

All of this paraphernalia is to display the portrait of a famous actor. The days of actor and kabuki stage censorship were long gone, the tradition of ‘complicating’ prints for the benefit of the knowing audience lingered after the sometimes hilarious games of cat and mouse with censors had passed. Although it is really impossible for us to appreciate nowadays, the public adoration of famous and skilled kabuki stage actors was limitless. Prints such as this were eagerly awaited even as late as the 1880’s. More fascinating still were prints that hinted at the private hidden world of backstage… similar to our own era’s fascination with show reels and out takes, the kabuki audience were eager for any glimpse of the secret world beyond the visible stage. Kunichika made several series of prints that alluded to the dressing room and these were a popular genre throughout the nineteenth century.

Mitsuhide was an actual historical character and well known for his betrayal of the powerful war lord Oda Nobunaga in 1579. Nobunaga was a wily and successful daimyo who promoted Mitsuhide; but he later turned on his master and forced him to commit suicide. As a result he became shogun for just thirteen days until Nobunaga’s death was avenged at the battle of Yamazaki. The character of ‘Akechi’ appears in many kabuki dramas of the nineteenth century.

A very fine print from one of Kunichika’s most collectable series. Margins top and left.

Published by Kanekodama Matashichi.

24 x 35.5 cm.