Kunisada, Both Sides of the Leaf Past and Present - Iwai Hanshiro V and Iwai Hanshiro VII

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Both Sides of the Leaf, Past and Present: Iwai Hanshiro V and Iwai Hanshiro VII, 1855. Oban.

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Read more on this print in our Eblogger essay.

This a stunning print from the very middle of the century, a decade after the most crushing oppression of free speech, the famous Tenpo Reforms, and a period that was fertile with the rumblings of the 1868 revolution that was to change Japan forever.  The print is from a series of perhaps thirteen known prints which pair a contemporary kabuki actor with a famous predecessor of the same dynasty. In this a case, the actor Iwai Hanshiro VII as the  Meshitsukai Ohatsu and Iwai Hanshiro V as Onoe.

Iwai Hanshiro VII (1804 - 1845), was a contemporary of Kunisada’s, whose father, Hanshiro V tragically outlived him by two years… they are both memorialised by Kunisada here nearly a decade later. The father was one of the best onnagata (female impersonator) actors in the history of kabuki theatre, reaching unparalleled heights of fame and  popularity. He lost both his sons and retired in 1845 to become a shaven headed priest, dying within two years of his youngest boy.

The main subject is the character of Ohatsu, a prostitute who is love with a shopkeeper and who is plagued by ill fortune. Her lover wants to marry her but cannot do so because of a crippling dowry payment to another woman that he has been swindled out of. In consequence the two lovers commit a double suicide, just when (unknown to them) they have been reprieved. The inset roundel shows the senior Hanshiro playing another onnagata role,  that of Osono, who had a similarly tragic affair with the carpenter Rokusa that also ended in a double suicide. The two dramas, Sonezaki Shinju and Osono Rokusa, were both based on real events occurring at the end of the 18th century; the former being the first kabuki play based on real events in the lives of commoners… Edoists, rather than aristocrats or heroes. The punning title of the series, Both Sides of the Leaf, Past and Present ("Konjaku konotegashiwa"), therefore refer to the old and young actors, albeit from the same ‘stem’ playing similar roles in different plays. There may be an added symbolism in the choice of plant; the iris is symbolic in Japan of heroism; in this case the heroic suicides of lovers in the face of an intransigent and uncaring authority.

This wordplay across series of prints, especially those featuring kabuki actors, is called mitate. It was a way of making prints, especially actor prints, that evaded the worst of the censorship laws. Often, the names of actors or the characters they played were missing from the print. This whole series can be seen at the Museum of Fine Art in Boston.  

An absolutely superb print in near perfect condition. Very fresh colours, superb impression and fine condition.

Publisher:  Iseyoshi.

37cm x 25cm.

£200.00