Kunichika, Actor in Scolopendra Kimono

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) Actor in Scolopendra (Centipede) Kimono, 1870’s. Oban.

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This is such a fine and striking image. An actor advancing on stage dressed in a deep blue kimono with the extraordinary image of a giant centipede embroidered upon it.  Deftly drawn, the menace in the drawing of the centipede… with that gruesome, human face easily matches that of the actor playing the role of presumably, the villain.

Kunichika was a master of these actor portraits, the last in fact of the great ukiyo-e artists to portray Edo and its theatre. Centipedes are loathed and reviled in Japan. The giant version, called the Mukade has a poisonous bite which is not fatal but inflicts an unpleasant sting. The centipedes appear in art when associated with the legend of  the Mukade and the warrior, Hidesato, recounted by Henri Joly in Legend in Japanese Art:

The same evening the hero arrived at the foot of the Mikamiyama where he perceived the large body of the centipede twined round the mountain in seven coils. The eyes of the horrible being burnt through the semi-darkness like two flaming moons. The intrepid hero shot four arrows in rapid succession at the mukade but in vain, not one of them pierced the armour, all rebounded from the steellike armour. Seeing this he, on Oto hime’s advice wetted the head of the fifth with his spittle — human spittle is popularly believed to be fatal to snakes, centipedes and creeping things in general — shot, and with this last arrow pierced armour and body of the centipede.

The crucial fact here is that human spittle is the secret to destroying a giant centipede. This is a great image and an unusual subject. The colour and impression are fine, the condition is very good excepting some light blue that has migrated from the very dense pigments.

24 x 36cm.