Kunisada, Nakamura Tomijuro II as the Spirit of a Willow Tree

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Nakamura Tomijuro II as the Spirit of a Willow Tree (Yanagi no sei) 1854. Oban.

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This is a wonderful, supernatural print. It shows an actor, Nakamura Tomijuro II, playing the role of the mystical spirit of a willow tree. The scene is from the play  Sanjûsangendô Munagi no Yurai whose plot revolves around a willow tree which is to be cut down. A man named Heitero saves the tree and years later, when the Emperor is taken sick, the willow tree is blamed and it is again ordered to be cut down. At the sound of the sawing, Heitero’s wife Oryu is taken drastically ill and collapses. In fact she is the spirit of the willow (Yanagi no sei) taken human form in gratitude to Heitero saving the tree before. She says farewell to husband and son and disappears. The father and son go to view the cut tree and when the boy starts to sing the tree moves miraculously in front of them.

Kunisada portrayed Nakamura Tomijuro II in this role several times, but this print is far and away the best. It is a terrific subject; the hovering flame on the left indicates that the scene is a supernatural event. Tomijuro’s robes are decorated with willow leaves and the figure bends somewhat like the trunk of a willow. All around, willow leaves descend, predicting the felling of the tree, seemingly joining the leaf pattern on the kimono. The actor wears the strange square of purple cloth on his forehead denoting that he is onnagata… a male actor in a female role.

Colour condition and impression are all fine, with delicate oxidation of the metallic orange pigment on the flames. A copy of the print is in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Published by Kiya Sojiro.

25 x 37 cm.