Kunisada, A Group of Modern Day Posters - Hatsuhana Doing Penance at Hakone

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) A Group of Modern Day Posters (Tosei Kamban soroi) Hatsuhana Doing Penance at Hakone, 1864. Oban.

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This, a superb print from arguably the best phase of Kunisada’s long career. Designed and printed in the last year of his life, aged 78, the print is a fine example of high period brocade printing. The colours here are rich and dense and the blocks are generously apportioned.

The striking image is probably from the kabuki drama, Hakone Reigen Izari no Adauchi, and it shows the actor Bando Hikosaburo as Hatsuhana… in fact the character is the ghost of Hatsuhana, praying and doing penance under the waterfall in the mountains of Hakone.  The play tells the story of Hatsuhana and her husband Katsugoro. Katsugoro’s brother has been killed by the arch-villain Sato Gosuke. They decide to seek vengeance but Katsugoro falls sick on the road and loses the use of his legs. Hatsuhana pulls him the remainder of the way in the homemade cart. They confront Gosuke who has also taken Hatsuhana’s mother as a hostage. Unable to fight, Katsugoro is ridiculed by the evil Gosuke. Katsugoro sees his wife praying for a miracle at waterfall shrine nearby but the following morning discovers that she has been beheaded by Gosuke (along with her mother) for resisting his advances. Katsugoro, miraculously restored to health, realises it was his wife’s ghost he saw praying at he waterfall, constant even in death.

Ukiyo-e artists frequently depicted this scene of piety and penance as with similar scenes showing the priest Mongaku in an equally distressing condition. These sorts of prints became popular in the mid century where the depiction of actors was strictly prohibited. Artists would use scenes from history with recognisable faces of actors as a way of disguising the true subject. By 1864 of course this was not so necessary but the genre persisted despite the relaxation of the law. The series title from which it is taken refers to ‘Modern Day Posters’. The print seeks to reproduce the design of popular hand bills with these framing motifs on all sides and corners. The cartouche of violent thunderclouds in the top right adds menace to the scenes. The overall design almost certainly derives from Kuniyoshi’s depiction of the same subject from 1842.

These stories were endlessly variable in specific subject matter and plot. Characters would migrate from one cycle of plays to another, appearing in different guises with differing back stories and motivations. In this print for example, the child on the bottom right is her son, visiting her whilst she prays under the Tonozawa waterfall for the cure of his deformed knee. Miraculously cured, Hatsuhana's son seeks revenge, killing his arch-enemy near the waterfall.

This is such a great piece of work and so completely perfect an example of mid-century ukiyo-e.. the rich colours and dramatic sweep of the lines, the melodrama of the subject matter… all is present. Colour, condition and impression are all fine, excepting some slight show through from album backing papers.

Published by Hirano-ya Shinzo.

34 x 24cm.