Kunichika, 100 Roles of Ichikawa Danjuro - Watonai

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) The One Hundred Roles of Ichikawa Danjuro: Watonai, 1893. Oban.

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One of Kunichika’s swan song series, The One Hundred Roles of Ichikawa Danjuro is a magnificent achievement, summarising both the triumph of kabuki and its demise. The collaboration between the greatest theatre artist and the theatre’s greatest star was legendary and this fine series is its testament. Kunichika worked to commemorate one hundred of the roles of kabuki theatre that Danjuro had mastered. This was a vast creative achievement for the now elderly and alcoholic artist and yet the prints shine and sparkle (literally) with verve and excitement. The cartouches are richly embossed with a cheesecloth pattern and different areas are burnished or else sprinkled with mica. The cartouche in the upper left contains the peony flowers of the Danjuro clan. This was a wildly popular series and surely helped to extend the popularity of the struggling culture of kabuki and indeed of ukiyo-e itself.

This print shows the reckless character Watonai, a Chinese exile living in Japan, from the kabuki drama Kokusen'ya Gassen. The exiled Chinese princess Sendan washes up on Watonai’s shore. Watonai is moved by the story of her father’s murder and her own tragedy and vows to reinstate her dynasty. They travel to China, and when they land Watonai has to kill the tigers that roam the shore as well as the retainers of the newly installed Emperor. The plot twists in every way, through tragedy and intrigue, though the dynasty is restored and Watonai is victorious.

Kunichika shows Danjuro as Watonai creeping through the bamboo forest, disguised with a grass cloak and hat. He wears the red face make (kumadori) of a warrior. The cartouche which supplies the background story shows a tiger…a reference to the hunt in the forest and to the themes of the play.

This is a tremendous print from one of the really great artistic achievements of Meiji Japan. The colour here is outstanding, the print is embossed, burnished and sprinkled with mica, the impression is fine and the condition also very fine, with full margins. A copy of this print is in the Honolulu Museum of Art

Published by Fukuda Kumajiro.

24 x 35 cm.