Kunisada, 36 Imaginary Poets - Ichikawa Danjuro VIII as Tokijiro

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Thirty-six Imaginary Poets: Ichikawa Danjuro VIII as Tokijiro, 1852. Oban.

Click here for a full-size image.

1852 was a prolific year for Kunisada; he was in great demand and his output of new designs was prodigious in every way. It is easy to pass over his enormous achievement, this distinctive and unmistakable genre portrait style that he made his own. He became adept at marrying travel scenes from the great Japanese highways - The Kisokaido and the Tokaido Roads - with portraits of actors, themselves cast as characters from history. The composition was an expedient work-around for strict censorship in the 1840’s but it soon became a style of its own. By 1852 prohibition on actor portraits was being relaxed but the puzzle picture nature of these mitate had found popularity with the audiences.

Hence in this print, which is simply gorgeous, we see one of the great actors of the day, Ichikawa Danjuro VIII playing the role of Tokijiro. Tokijiro is a samurai, now disgraced and the plot of the play tells of the doomed love affair between him and the prostitute Urazato. Tokijiro cannot afford to buy her out of service. They have a child together and plan to escape; as punishment Urazato is bound with rope and put out in the snow. She is fed water by her young daughter whilst her lover waits in a pine tree above. He rescues her but they have nowhere to go and they commit a joint suicide that same night. Kunisada often portrayed the scene which was hugely popular with kabuki audiences.  

In this fine print, Kunisada is commemorating the drama Akegarasu Hana no Nureginu, which was staged in 1851 at the Ichimuraza Theatre in Edo. It is a superb deluxe print, finely embossed in different textures, and notable for the hand applied gofun (ground pearl shells) mixed with silver which has now oxidised, turning the snow a poetic, reflective black. The gofun makes each print different and an original work in its own right.

Danjuro occupies the foreground, his arms folded; the brothel is seen in the background of the beautiful snowy scene, looking so like a modernist, American building by Frank Lloyd Wright. A superb print with every refinement of the print process. The series is highly regarded, very collectible and rightly seen as one of his best from this prolific year. Colour, condition and impression are all fine. There are copies of this print in the British Museum, London and the MFA in Boston

Published by Iseya Kanekichi.

25 x 37 cm.