Kunisada, Nakamura Utaemon IV as Higuchi no Jiro Kanemitsu Masquerading as the Boatman Matsuemon

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Nakamura Utaemon IV as Boatman (Sendo) Matsuemon, actually Higuchi no Jiro Kanemitsu, 1850’s. Oban.

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Another very fine print in the same tradition as the preceding series, Portraits of Hit Plays, this is late Kunisada, so rich in detail, expression and quality. For those new to the magical, mysterious world of ukiyo-e, what to make of those mad, staring eyes? What is this alarming, bulky man doing above the river?

This is another kabuki drama of course. The picture is a representation of the hugely successful kabuki actor, Nakamura Utaemon IV, here playing the role of the boatman Matsuemon, but actually Higuchi no Jiro Kanemitsu. The strange expression is called the mie - it is a frozen, protracted moment in the solo performance when the actor concentrates with the contorted face to provoke extreme emotion. Disentangling the imagery here, Matsuemon is in fact up a pine tree holding on withh his left hand, looking out and exclaiming with his right. Behind him is the lake from whence he has left his boat and the little jetty where his wife, ignorant of his real identity is waiting for him. Beyond that we can see the flags and banners and pennants of the approaching Genji army who are in pursuit of him, his position, betrayed by his father-in-law. We can see him and his father in law in another print by Kunisada.

The play, Hirakana Seisuiki, even in synopsis is immensely long and complicated. We are concerned with Act III, where Matsuemon is revealed to be a samurai and skilled swordsman…

Toward evening three rough-looking boatmen visit the house to ask Matsuemon for instructions in the art of sakaro. Matsuemon leaves with them for the river bank where Matsuemon's boat is moored.

As Matsuemon goes on board with the three boatmen and begins to instruct them, they suddenly attack him, saying they have been ordered to arrest him by Kajiwara Kagetoki who knows that Matsuemon is in fact Higuchi Kanemitsu. Matsuemon fights back and beats them to death with an oar one by one. Then he climbs up a large pine tree and, looking out over the countryside, sees that he is surrounded on all sides by the Genji army.
(Summary from kabuki21)

This is a terrific print, there are several versions, of the same subject done at the same period. This copy is in very good condition, colour and impression are all fine.

26 x 36 cm.