Kunichika, Benkei and the White Fox

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) A Collection of Thirty-six Poems: Benkei and the White Fox, 1867. Vertical Oban Diptych.

Click here for a full-size image of the upper sheet.

Click here for a full-size image of the lower sheet.

This is a very rare and very splendid print by Kunichika. Kunichika made very few vertical diptychs in his career. The arrangement was more common during the early Edo period where in the kakimono-e format they were used to fill niches in houses or sometimes to make a background to a votive shrine. This is a series of unrecognised prints - some are known either as two sheets or as separated prints - but this print is unrecorded in the literature and does not appear in any recognised collections. The theme is a set of mitate (wordplay) images set around the theme of the well known selection of thirty-six canonical poems.

This print is a fabulous, dynamic, twisted composition of two figures… seemingly crammed like specimens in a bottle. The main figure who occupies the upper part of the print is that of the warrior monk Benkei. He is wielding a naginata - a pole that carries a blade, Benkei’s weapon of choice - and with his foot he pushes down on a white fox in the bottom right corner. The two characters are actors; the print is one of those images that is neither an historic rendering nor the record of a theatrical performance as such. The fox character wears an elaborate costume. In the complex realm of representation, Kunichika has drawn a fox in ‘human' form. It is both fox and man… in Kunichika’s mind it is an actor wearing a suit, in the viewer’s mind the figure hovers between two worlds, much as the character himself does.

The story is derived from the kabuki drama Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees.  Yoshitsune is the great warrior hero who established the Minamoto Clan’s pre-eminence in Japan in the middle ages. Yoshitsune is usually pictured fighting the warrior monk Benkei at Gojo Bridge.   Benkei becomes his loyal protector and between them they lead an armed rebellion against the Taira, establishing Yoshitsune’s brother as the first national Shogun - a position that would last 650 years until the19th century. Yoshitsune was betrayed by his brother and later killed himself and his family at the siege of Koromogawa no tate.

The play establishes an entirely fanciful link to the folk hero and shape-shifter Tadanobu. Tadanobu  is an adopted name and the character is in fact a kitsune - a shape shifting fox-spirit. Late in the play when Tadanobu is challenged he reveals that the Hatsune drum carried by Yoshitsune is made from the skins of his parents who died four hundred years previously. He has taken the form of Tadanobu in order to retrieve the object. At the conclusion, the fox spirit departs dramatically to a flamboyant dance, returning later to defend Yoshitsune once more. In the play itself there is no mention of a conflict between Benkei and the fox and one has to assume that Kunichika has contrived the match in order to emphasise the quality of the word play and the poem.

This is a tremendous print, very rare and in fine condition. The energy of the figure and the intensity of pattern are supremely confident. The colour and the impression are exceptionally good. Condition is fine, apart from album fold to the extreme left edge.

70 x 24 cm.