Kunichika, 36 Views of the Eastern Capital - Hanakawado no Sukeroku

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) Thirty-six Views of the Eastern Capital: Onoe Kikugoro as Hanakawado no Sukeroku, Yoshiwara, 1863. Oban.

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One of the great prints from this fascinating series, a collaboration between three artists, Kunisada (16 prints) together with Kunichika, his pupil, (21 prints), with backgrounds designed by another pupil, Kunihisa, in the years 1863/65. The title, Thirty-six views of the Eastern Capital (Toto sanjurokkei no uchi), otherwise rendered The Thirty-six Famous Views, recalls the censorship reforms that demanded:

To make woodblock prints of Kabuki actors, courtesans and geisha is detrimental to public morals. Henceforth the publication of new works [of this kind] as well as the sale of previously procured stocks is strictly forbidden.

The response of the artists and publishers was to disguise the identity of actors and prostitutes under layers of meaning and allusion or as in this case, travel pictures with innocuous titles… the practice of trick pictures was referred to as mitate. By 1863, the laws had been relaxed but the practice had become part of the genre of woodblock print making and continued.

This stunning print shows the great kabuki actor, Onoe Kikugoro as Hanakawado no Sukeroku… one of the most outstanding and famous roles in kabuki. The play, Sukeroku, takes place in the Yoshiwara… Edo’s infamous and vast red light district. It references a more established and famous vendetta from history: The Revenge of the Soga Brothers, which was one of the great epics of Japanese literature. Essentially a nobleman has been tricked and assassinated. His two sons, Soga Goru and Soga Juro spend years growing up and plotting his revenge. When adult they set out to find the killers of their father, tracking them down and executing their revenge only to be killed themselves. This play is one of the many that depict fanciful events away from the principal story. A complex and comical drama, we see Sukeroku - in fact Soga Goro in disguise - swaggering through the Yoshiwara, picking fights with samurai in order to see their swords, hoping to identify his father’s killer. The main action revolves around a prostitute, Agemaki, and her elderly client Ikyu, with Sukeroku goading him to draw his sword. Of course, it turns out that Ikyu is one of the assassins and a fight ensues in which he is killed. A great plot summary exists on the very fine website edoflourishing.

The print shows Onoe Kikugoro as Hanakawado no Sukeroku drawing his sword. He can be identified by the rakish purple headband that he is wearing. Behind him, like battery sheds, are the ‘houses’ of the Yoshiwara. Geisha, prostitutes, courtesans regardless of status were treated like cattle… latter-day attempts to present this trade in women in any other way is very misleading.

It is a fantastic print, a very early Kunichika, full of movement and superb drawing. Colour, impression and condition are all fine.

37cm x 25cm.