Kunisada, Onoe Kikugoro IV, Bando Mitzugoro and Ichikawa Danzo in Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Onoe Kikugoro IV, Bando Mitzugoro and Ichikawa Danzo in Tôkaidô Yotsuya Kaidan, 1831. Oban Triptych.

Click here for a full-size image.

A superb Kunisada kabuki triptych. There is a tremendous vitality to these early, robust theatre triptychs by Kunisada. The vigorous brush strokes, the sparse, earth colours and the compressed space make for highly dramatic images and this is no exception.

The print shows the kabuki actors, from left: Onoe Kikugoro IV, Bando Mitzugoro and Ichikawa Danzo on the stage in the kabuki drama, Tôkaidô Yotsuya Kaidan ("The Ghost Story of Yotsuya"). The usual images from this play show the disfigured apparition of Oiwa, poisoned and mutilated by her greedy husband. Identification of this print is unsure. Only two other copies are known, one in the Ritsumeiken University collection and one in the Waseda Theatre Museum collection. Neither identifies the play although there is universal agreement on the actors. Identification relies on the incidental signifiers of the set and upon the certainty of the actors performing this play in 1832, the only time that they appeared together that year.

We have a blog post that accompanies this selection which analyses this print and why this and all other ukiyo-e avoid depicting shadows in prints. The suggestion is that the folk tales and popular imagination from which these images are derived are not ‘rooted’ in the way that western art is concerned with place. These images are metaphors of a popular knowledge… they exist as signs only and must lose the connectedness that ties them to the corporeal world.

The Ghost of Oiwa is a hugely complex drama - the bones of the story concern Iemon, who is married to Oiwa. He resolves to marry Oume but first must dispose of his wife. The family of Oume provide him with a disfiguring face cream that Oiwa applies and the result is one of the most dramatic scenes in kabuki theatre. Transformed with the mandatory face make up of a distorted and drooping eye, the actor starts to comb his hair leaving a mountain of fallen locks, revealing the final hideous transformation of the character. A former servant of Iemon, Kohei, steals the traditional medicine of the Tamiya family from his master. Iemon catches Kohei and murders him. Then he orders his cronies to nail the bodies of Oiwa and Kohei to the opposite sides of a door and to throw the door into a river. The motive is to link Oiwa and Kohei as lovers. Famously, Oiwa returns to haunt Iemon in various guises - most well known in ukiyo-e as a broken lamp shade. She eventually drives him mad and he takes his life, (shades here of Edgar Allen Poe’s Tell-tale Heart of 1843, exactly contemporary with performances of this play).

The play has a political subtext and was widely seen as part of the growing disaffection with the traditional role of women in Edo society. The dramatic revenge upon Iemon by his wife was an expression of the increasing intolerance that Edo women had with the outdated patriarchal society - out of step with the new bourgeois culture of the time.  

The play was interwoven (after its 1825 performance) with another unconnected narrative of the Chushingura and as a consequence there are countless narrative threads of which this is presumably one.

Colour and impression are fine, the print is in good condition overall, some minor wear to lower corners.

78 x 36 cm.