Shigeharu & Kunihiro, Keisei Setsugekka

Ryusai Shigeharu (ca. 1803 - 1853) & Utagawa Kunihiro (1815 - 1843) Keisei Setsugekka, 1825 - 1830. Oban diptych.

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This is a fascinating and very rare diptych indeed. It is known from being one of six collaborations made by the artists Shigeharu and Kunihiro. Shigeharu designed the right sheet, Kunihiro designed the left sheet. This diptych commemorates the debut of the play Keisei Setsugekka at the Kado theatre in 1830. The play is an Ishikawa-goemonmono; that is, a play related to the life and death of the king of thieves Ishikawa Goemon, the legendary outlaw (though the only act that survives of this particular play is one that does not feature Goemon). Goemon was a prolific thief and Robin Hood figure who attempted an assassination on Mashiba Hideyoshi. In the kabuki play, Goemon has taken up residence in the vermillion temple of Nanzenji. The scene depicted in the print is described by the kabuki resource Kabuki21:

The Sanmon gates start to rise on stage, revealing the first floor of the structure, a purification stone basin and … a pilgrim, who is none other than Mashiba Hideyoshi. He writes on one of the pillars the following sentence: "The number of thieves is countless, as the sands of the shore of the beach of Shichirigahama". He sees Goemon through the reflection in the water of the stone basin. The thief recognizes his sworn enemy and quickly flings a dagger at him. Hideyoshi parries the attack with the handle of the basin dipper. Both actors strike their final pose: Hideyoshi challenges Goemon, who has one foot on the balcony guardrail, one hand on his sword and a menacing face, ending one of the shortest but most spectacular Kabuki plays.

In reality, Goemon was captured and sentenced to be boiled in oil with his young son, in an iron kettle still called goemonburo (Goemon Bath), the subject also of many grim ukiyo-e. The print shows Nakamura Utaemon III as Ishikawa Goemon and Arashi Rikan II as Gengoro (confusingly… the character in blue should be Hideyoshi!).  

Nevertheless, from this confusing, lost play script emerges this powerful print. Striking is the skull in the foreground, emanating a ghostly flame, telling us that the scene we are watching is in some way indicative of the presence of a ghost or a ghostly apparition.

The print is somewhat better known as the single right hand, Shigeharu sheet. The entire diptych appears on page 147 of Dean Schwaab’s authoritative, Osaka Prints, John Murray 1989. It is very scarce in this form and rarely comes up for sale. Colour and condition and impression are all fine. An outstanding Osaka print.

Published by Tenki.

50 x 37 cm.