Kunisada, Heroic Commoners in Kabuki - Iwai Hanshiro as Miuraya Agemaki

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Heroic Commoners in Kabuki (Rien kyokaku den): Iwai Hanshiro VII as Miuraya Agemaki, 1863. Oban.

Click here for a detailed enlargement.

This fabulous print is not all it seems. The woman pictured here is not a woman, she is a male actor specialising in female parts, a profession called onnagata. Iwai Hanshiro VII is playing the part of a very high class prostitute called Miuraya Agemaki. We know that she is a male actor because there were no female actors in kabuki. We know that she is a prostitute because of the way that she is dressed, most especially the baffling clothes peg like hair pins threatening to slither out of her hair. The website, Invitation to Kabuki, has a picture of a contemporary onnagata and an explanation of her elaborate costume.

The print comes from a highly regarded series commonly called Stories of a Chivalrous Man in a Theatrical World, a lavish series of exotic prints depicting largely fanciful roles for popular actors, rather than prints commemorating or advertising specific performances.

The print shows the ‘courtesan’ Agemaki in a  scene from the play Sukeroku.   The play, Sukeroku Yukari no Edo Zakura, is one of the many farces that were written around loose extrapolations of the great Japanese revenge saga the Soga Monogatari. The courtesan Agemaki is the lover of Sukeroku (from the title of the kabuki drama) and also of the old samurai Ikyu. Sukeroku is in fact Soga Goro, the well known hero of the epic Soga Monogatari, in disguise. He is trying to discover the identity of his father's assassin and suspects the old man of possessing his father's sword. The play shows the verbal sparring between the two male leads as Sukeroku attempts to get the samurai to draw his weapon.  There is a great deal of comedy in the play, Sukeroku being the classic archetype of the otokodate - the street-tough, romantic, reckless hero. Agemaki has to decide between the reckless young man or the certainty of her future with the aged warrior. In the final act, Sukeroku tricks the old man into drawing his sword, showing himself to be the killer of Sukeroku's father. Ichikawa Yaozo VI, and Bando Muraemon play minor characters Fukuyama no Zenta and Asagao Senbei.

This is a great print from a fine series, only a year or two before his death. He signed this series nanajuhachi sai Toyokuni hitsu, "the 78 years old Toyokuni"… a defiant, Picasso like gesture. The print is full sized, with margins. There are various embellishments - burnishing to the blacks and sprinkled mica adhering in the sky at the top of the print. Colour, impression and condition are all very good. A copy of this print is in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. 

Signed: nanajuhachi sai Toyokuni hitsu.

Published by Hiranoya Shinzo.

26 x 37 cm.