Kunisada, Ichikawa Kuzo III as An no Heibei and Nakamura Fukusuke I as Hotei Ichiemon

Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865) Ichikawa Kuzo III as An no Heibei and Nakamura Fukusuke I as Hotei Ichiemon, from an untitled series,  c.1855. Oban.

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This print is in a way a companion to the previous Yoshitoshi print, Biographies of Modern Men… in that series, Yakuza style gamblers were pitched against each other and strangely given a title more suitable to Victorian social reformers. Here, a full ten years earlier, Kunisada the great theatre artist, presents a similar story. What an odd one though… the series is untitled but Kunisada pictures two actors per page in a series of  ten prints depicting what at first glance might be earnest philosophers in discussion… minor elected representatives to an assembly… samurai landlords? In fact the men in these prints are named and known historical characters, oddly transformed from the lowest form of street hooligan to these noble, thoughtful men.

Around 1700, An no Heibei and Hotei Ichiemon were members of a group called ‘The Five Men of Naniwa’.. themselves members of Shichigumi… a gang, (no different from London or New York street gangs of today) led by a fearsome hooligan called Karigane Bunhichi. They all of them came to a sticky end though. Their lives are recorded in police records of the time and these in return are written up in a splendid book: Osaka, the Merchant's Capital of Early Modern Japan By Osamu A. Wakita. Their fates:

An no Heibei (ca. 1672 - 1702)
Heibei attacked people with a sword in 1699, and in 1701 stabbed Kibei, employee of Kawachiya Gohei of the residential quarter Kyuhoji in the side with a dagger. Subsequent police investigation resulted in Heibei’s arrest the following day. He was beheaded at the execution grounds on the 26 day of the 8th month 1702. A tragic end to someone whose alias in the gang, Heibei, God of Wealth, promised so much.

Hotei Ichiemon (ca. 1673 - 1702)
Expelled from his father’s home, he became homeless in 1694. He was involved in violent crimes from at least 1697, when he joined the gang that included An no Heibei. He was imprisoned in 1697, was let out in 1698 but went on to join Shichigumi. He was beheaded for violent crime on the 26th day of the 8th month, 1702.

Here Kunisada is responding to the popular middle class romanticising of gang violence as an expression (among other things) of civil unrest with government… it finds its parallel in modern day TV dramas such as Peaky Blinders or bourgeois flirtation with urban gang culture.

It’s a fascinating, historically riveting piece. Colour condition and impression are all fine. This is from late in Kunisada’s career and from the height of Edo print culture.

The print is in the collection of MFA Boston.

Publisher: Iseya Kanekichi.

£180.00