Kunichika, Ichikawa Danjuro IX in Ningen Banji Kane no Yo no Naka

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) Ichikawa Danjuro IX in the Play Ningen Banji Kane no Yo no Naka, 1879. Oban Triptych.

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What is one to make of this masterpiece of design and strange other-worldliness? I remain equal parts captivated and mystified by the brick kanji in the background, the blossom, the bonsai and the rhythm of the figures in the foreground. It’s certainly an enigmatic print and something that is hard to satisfactorily decipher and understand. The print commemorates the performance in February 1879 of a strange play, unique I think at the time, Ningen Banji Kane no Yo no Naka, (Money Takes Care of Everything). The drama is unique because it was based on a British play of 1840: Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Money. Not only the plot but the names of the characters were adapted from the western original… hence, Efu Rinnosuke was chosen to replace Alfred Evelyn and Seizaemon's daughter Oshina was chosen to replace  Georgina Vesey.

The plot is complicated as usual; Rinnosuke and Okura are orphaned into the prosperous and comically greedy Seizaemon household. Seizaemon’s brother in law is gravely ill and Rinnosuke desires to visit him. The family don’t think it worth their while and reuse to loan Rinnosuke the money. When the uncle dies, he leaves his money to Rinnosuke in gratitude for his concern.

Rinnosuke sets up a small ceramics business (the brick shapes in the background?), and is approached by everyone with offers of their daughter’s hands in marriage. Tragedy strikes when Rinnosuke is obliged to sell everything he owns to cover an outstanding debt to a stranger, Keori Gorôemon, owed by his late father.  At this, everyone withdraws their friendship and offers of marriage. The debt turns out to be ruse, in order to smoke out the relative’s greed and Rinnosuke is given back his shop and he announces that he will marry his childhood sweetheart Okura.

Kunichika pictures the major and minor characters… the superstar actor, Ichikawa Danjuro IX is in the centre playing the role of Keori Gorôemon; another giant of kabuki, Onoe Kikugoro plays Rinnosuke in the right hand sheet… the heroine, Okura is played by Iwai Hanshiro. Notice how the male actors are all sporting western haircuts, an early shift in tastes in the kabuki stage.

This is a great print, visually ravishing and wonderfully produced. There is some slight trimming otherwise, colour, condition and impression are all fine.

72 x 36 cm.