Yoshitaki, An Actor as Yoshitsune

Utagawa Yoshitaki (ca 1841 - 1899) An Actor as Yoshitsune, 1868.  Oban.

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There are very, very few prints in oban format from the second period of the Osaka School. Earlier, pre-tempo reform artists worked mainly in the larger format but after 1840, Osaka artists worked almost exclusively on the modest chuban scale, seemingly condensing the colours and lines, creating lapis-like shimmering jewels of prints that are scarcely believable in skill and delicacy.

It’s unusual then, to see an artist so accomplished in one format make prints that are so exquisite in an unusual form. Yoshitaki made maybe six or seven known oban okubi-e. One series, A Comparison of Virtuous Pictures, published around 1859 is well known; a second series from which this print derives is known only from one other print, Jatsukawa Enjaku as the Hairdresser Hajime Tada.

I suspect that this print represents an actor playing the role of the great samurai and hero Minamoto Yoshitsune. Yoshitsune has parallels with the English folk hero Robin Hood; and his is a tragic and very famous story in Japan. His father was persecuted by the rival Taira Clan and Yoshitsune was brought up in a monastery. Legend has it that he was then taught the secrets of fighting by Tengu (mythical forest creatures) before taking up rebellion against his father’s old enemies. Yoshitsune is usually pictured fighting the warrior monk Benkei at Gojo Bridge. Benkei, known as a phenomenally strong man and warrior, had secured the bridge with the intention of relieving 1000 samurai of their swords. Yoshitsune was his 1000th victim. Yoshitsune, though slight, defeated the giant man using Tengu fighting skills. Benkei became his loyal protector and between them they lead an armed rebellion against the Taira, establishing Yoshitsune’s brother as the first national Shogun - a position that would last 650 years until the 19th century. Yoshitsune was betrayed by his brother and later killed himself and his family at the siege of Koromogawa no tate.

Yoshitsune is usually pictured, as here, as slight and effeminate Here his armour and weapons are richly rendered, this is a first class, first edition deluxe print… even rarer than the later issues which would have been un-embellished as this is with gold and silver and mica. It’s a magnificent piece of work, exquisitely balancing the blues and greens against the warm metallics. Except… the condition is quite poor. For me, it is not such an issue, the quality of the print shines through, but there are numerous holes and areas of damage and the print has been folded at some time in the past. It is nevertheless a great piece of work. Colour and impression  are outstanding, condition fair.

23.5 x 35.5 cm.