Kunichika, 36 Good and Evil Beauties - The Nurse Asaoka

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) Thirty-six Good and Evil Beauties: The Nurse Asaoka, 1876. Oban.

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Thirty-six Good and Evil Beauties is easily one of Kunichika’s best series. Groundbreaking in so many ways, one gets the feeling that the artist here is being dragged along by events - unable to resist the pull of history. The quality of the printing is outstanding, the drawing is fluid and original and the designs bristle with invention and startling use of colour and pattern. Each print from the series takes a famous woman of history and portrays her beneath a cartouche explaining her story. Some of these characters are warlike, some evil and vain and some are pious or devoted. What is interesting historically is how Kunichika presents women as individuals and not archetypes. This is at variance to the traditional bijin portraits of pliable or available females and chimes with Yoshitoshi’s later series on similar themes such as Thirty-two Aspects of Customs and Manners from 1888.

This print shows Asaoka, the tragic heroine of the kabuki drama, Jitsuroku Sendai Hagi. The plot involves Asaoka caring for the child heir to the powerful Date clan. Despite her best efforts there is a plot to poison him led by the evil Harada Kai. When a retainer brings her own son, Chiyomatsu to visit, the plan to keep the child heir hidden is revealed and the vultures circle. Her loyalty to her young charge is so great she denies her own beloved son in favour of the heir, but amid suspicions the play ends with the announcement that someone has been poisoned.

The series usually shows women of history and this print is therefore anomalous. The portrait is of an anonymous female rather than a kabuki (male actor) in role. Kunichika pictures her with a  box of sweets while her charge, Kamechiyo looks on adoringly. The print declares the great devotion and piety of Asaoka in placing the young heir before her own son. There were several of these stories of loyalty that were hugely popular in Edo Japan at the time.

It is a stunning print, rare - I have not seen it before - and in outstanding condition. The blue is especially effective set against the deep Meiji red kimono. The paper is deeply embossed, the impression is very fine, colour and state are all as if it were printed a yesterday. Full size, with margins.

Published by Morimoto Junzaburo.

36 x 24 cm.