Yoshitoshi, Ichimura Uzaemon as Benten Kozo Kikunosuke

Taiso Yoshitoshi (1839 - 1892) Ichimura Uzaemon as Benten Kozo Kikunosuke, 1862.  Oban.

Click here for a full-size image.

A fantastic and very bloody Yoshitoshi actor print. This is one of a very few actor portraits made by Yoshitoshi early on in his career. His teacher Kuniyoshi, had died in 1861, throwing Yoshitoshi into financial and professional precariousness. He managed, through personal friendships with the actors Ichikawa Danjuro IX and Onoe Kikugoro V to make a small living making kabuki prints such as this. Forty-four known designs exist from 1862; fewer - nineteen - from the following year.

These prints are very rare indeed and not many survive in good condition; indeed, there are only two or three known copies of this design. The drawing and arrangement of the print owe a tremendous amount to Kuniyoshi’s rival, Kunisada. In fact the design is very close indeed to a Kunisada print from the same year, of the same performance… it is almost as if Yoshitoshi was casting around for an influence outside his studio training. Of course, the huge amount of spilled blood predicts the trend that would dominate Yoshitoshi’s career over the coming years.

The play itself, Aoto Zôshi Hana no Nishikie, premiered at the Ichimura-za in Edo in 1862 - hence the flurry of prints from that year. Loosely based on real characters and events from the 18th century, it tells the story of five bandits, petty thieves like Benten Kozo. In the first act, Benten disguises himself in order to steal a valuable temple burner… the remainder of the play sees him disguised as a woman attempting to steal from a shop owner in Edo. When this ploy is uncovered and he flees, he rejoins his cohorts at the river where they are surrounded by the police. Benten makes his escape to the roof of the nearby temple but is cornered. After a fight he takes his own life, expiring on the sloping tiles prior to a spectacular theatrical effect that sees the roof lift off to reveal Nippon Daemon, the bandit chief. 

This is a bold design, the drawing and the focus is much ‘louder’ than prints of the time, such as the Kunisada. The drawing of the face is compelling - suggesting Yoshitoshi’s mastery of portraiture but nevertheless in the style still of the Utagawa School. He lends Benten ( a petty thief after all) an heroic authority, he grasps a pole sword, blood pours from a self inflicted wound, behind him is the stylised pattern of roof tiles and and temple decoration. This is an heroic portrait… a martyr surely? The audience for this play would have all been on the side of the hapless commoner - a clear and worrying sign for the government that revolution and dissent was rife in a restive population.

A rare print, full size with margins, colour and impression fine some slight surface soiling and some creases but overall excellent condition. Blind embossing to sleeves and jacket.

25cm x 37cm.