Kunichika, Scene from Ashiya Doman Ouchi Kagami

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) Scene from the Play, Ashiya Doman Ouchi Kagami, 1881. Oban triptych.

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This terrific… even startling triptych by Kunichika is the penultimate scene from a hugely popular kabuki play, Ashiya Doman Ouchi Kagami, a supernatural drama about a fox spirit  transforming into a woman. Every age has its great anxieties and these often find expression in paranoid extremes… for instance, the early modern period in England during the seventeenth century became obsessed with female poisoners, most likely as a consequence of male anxiety about social change and female independence… it is commonplace to equate 1950’s American obsessions with UFO’s  with Soviet threats and so on. In Japan in the late nineteenth century there was a generalised obsessive fear of magical foxes… often impersonating humans, playing tricks or most revealingly using new technology like the telegraph and so on for mischief. These seem to be expressions of a wider anxiety about the relaxation of Japan’s attitude to foreigners.

That aside, the play tells the story of  Abe no Yasuna and his wife Kuzu-no-ha. The play opens on their house and their small son, Doji. Outside the real Kuzu-no-ha arrives with her father and mother - she is Yasuna’s fiancé, separated for six years. Outside, Yasuna bumps into his father in law and what he assumes is his wife. He explains to his in laws that Kuzu had saved him from death and they had married and had a son five years ago… he returns to the house and greets his wife, wondering who the imposter outside could be! The Kuzo inside is of course the imposter, a fox spirit who took the form of Yasuna’s fiancé years before.

Kuzo realises the game is up and tells the story to the boy in his sleep. She writes a farewell poem on a screen, but her hands are already turning into paws and she must write the last of it with the brush held in her mouth… the final words being: if you would search for me, go to the forest of Shinoda. Yasuna has heard all this and begs her to stay; she is his real wife. She is gone, magically, into the forest.

In the final scene, Kuzo enters in the mask of a fox grief stricken by the loss of her husband and young son. She is met by a bunch of yakko; these are porters who are often used in crucial scenes in kabuki plays… they are usually (as in this piece) in red make up. These men have been hired by a villain to pursue her. As they close in on her the actor, Arashi Rikan executes a high wire dive from the stage in a dramatic final leap.

One of the most memorable moments of the play occurs when the fox writes the poem, done with brushes held in the mouth, a trick suggesting the character's magical animal-nature. Not only must the writing be done in these unusual ways, but the calligraphy must be first-rate. The print is self explanatory… the centre sheet shows the fox spirit writing her final poem, holding the child in her arms. On the right sheet is the actor, Sukedakaya Takasuke playing the role of Yasuna overhearing her confession. The zig-zag break denotes a change of scene showing the three porters in their crazy red make up from the final act on the left.

This has everything that a Meiji kabuki print should have, a great story, bold colour, great design and an arresting image. I suppose you could say that these are the forerunners of the modern movie poster. A great print, colour condition and impression are all fine.

Published by Takekawa Seikichi.

72 x 36 cm.

£220.00