Kuniyoshi, Ichikawa Danjuro VIII as Sukeroku

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) Ichikawa Danjuro VIII as Sukeroku, 1850. Oban.

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This fabulous design shows the great kabuki superstar Ichikawa Danjuro VIII as Sukeroku from the play of the same name. The play 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 Goro 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 striking element of the design of course is the gigantic arrow and target. A misleading suggestion is that the two devices refer to another performance, Yanone, "The Arrow Head". Soga Goro is at home at the New Year, polishing arrow heads for his planned revenge against his father's enemy Suketsune. Tired from his work, he takes a nap, placing a picture of the treasure ship of the Seven Gods of Good Fortune, said to bring a fortunate first dream, below his pillow. But Goro dreams that his brother Juro has been captured and is crying for help. He leaps up from the dream, and grabbing a horse used by a radish seller, rides off to help Juro. This absurd drama features giant radishes and a gigantic, man-sized arrow.

The use of the arrow and target here though is a reference to the kabuki signboards hung outside theatres depicting a ‘hit play’. The print therefore shows the actor Ichikawa Danjuro VIII as Sukeroku (Soga Goro in disguise) in the hit play Sukeroku.

This is a great and striking design, rare and unusual for a Kuniyoshi kabuki print. Colour, impression and condition are all fine.

Published by Hori Takichi.

37 x 25 cm.