Kunichika, New Plays of the Meiji-za - Ichikawa Sadanji I as Okawa Tomoeman

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) New Plays of the Meiji-za: Ichikawa Sadanji I as Okawa Tomoeman, 1899. Oban Triptych.

This stunning triptych by Kunichika is from the series New Plays of the Meiji-za. The Meiji-za theatre, which still operates today, opened in Tokyo in 1873. Destroyed by fire in 1890 it reopened in 1893. Kunichika made many woodblock prints celebrating and advertising the performances there and this print illustrates the climax of the play Tsuta Moyo Chizome No Gosho. Okawa Tomoemon, here played by Ichikawa Sadanji I, is pictured rescuing a vital document box from the flames that are engulfing his master's mansion.  Unable to escape the burning building and in order to save the papers, he slices himself open, thrusting the documents inside his corpse in the hope that his body will protect them from the flames. After the fire, his charred corpse was discovered and the blood stained documents recovered intact, thereby saving his master's fortune.

This is an exquisite print, typical of the daring compositions and panoramic scenes of Kunichika's late career and for which he is so famous. Three oban prints attached at the seams and mounted onto Japanese paper. In almost perfect condition, the red flames have retained their original colour and are spectacularly embossed across all three sheets. A fine kabuki woodblock print of an important Japanese play.

This print is illustrated on page 139 of Amy Reigle Newland Time Past and Time Present, Images of a Forgotten Master,  Hotei Publishing 1999.