Kuniyoshi, Portraits of the Faithful Samurai of True Loyalty - Ushioda Masanojo Takanori

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) Portraits of the Faithful Samurai of True Loyalty: Ushioda Masanojo Takanori, 1853. Oban.

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This is an exceptional print, one of great interest in the development of Kuniyoshi’s work and one that throws light upon subjects as diverse as the beginnings of photography in Japan (really, as early as 1848) and Kuniyoshi’s fascination with western drawing and western perspective.

There is a disarming brevity to this piece, to the few prints made from what was presumably intended to be a much longer series. First some background to the subject matter: In 1702, Lord Asano of Ako was provoked by Kira Yoshinaka into drawing his sword in the shogun’s palace, for which he was forced to take his own life, and his estate was confiscated.  Forty-seven of Asano’s retainers, who were now ronin (samurai without masters), planned and carried out a successful attack on Kira’s palace.  Kira’s head was cut off with the same dagger Lord Asano used to commit seppuku. The forty-six surviving ronin were forced to take their own lives.  These events were made into the play, Kanadehon Chushingura.  This series portrays some of the forty-seven ronin, with altered names, paired with short poems in the red and green cartouches.

There were many series depicting the most popular revenge tragedy in Japanese culture. This series is special because of the simply exceptional quality of the drawing, and the collision of the new-found west with the now rapidly collapsing native culture of Edo.  This print shows the archer Ushioda Masanojo Takanori in western style but in the traditional costume of the Ronin. In this print and the others of the series, one can identify the interest that Kuniyoshi had in the work of the Japanese photographer Ugai Gyokusen who was attempting daguerreotypes as early as 1848. Also present in this and in other prints is the influence of seventeenth century engraver Jan Nieuhof and his depictions of inhabitants of the East Indies, subtly altered to accommodate different weapons. As an aside, Nieuhof’s perspective drawings had a huge influence upon Kuniyoshi, especially seen in another print of the same story - the Night Attack, Act XI.

Aside from the many references and connections that the prints throw up, this remains a startling and original piece of printing. The drawing is deft and the quality of the print is simply outstanding. Prints from this series rarely come to the market and are immensely collectible. This is a fine example and an early edition. Full size, colour, condition, impression are all fine.

Publisher: Sumiyoshi-ya Masagoro.