Yoshitora, Actor Portraits Past and Present - Okubi-e of Bando Mitsugoro as Geisha Miyokichi

Utagawa Yoshitora (active 1850-1880) Actor Portraits Past and Present: Okubi-e of Bando Mitsugoro as Geisha Miyokichi, c. 1869. Oban.

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This series of prints, credited to Kunisada, is in fact by his colleague Yoshitora. It is from the most outstanding series of prints made during the golden age of Japanese woodblock prints - the nineteenth century. In boldness, design, originality and execution, the prints tower over pretty much anything else.

John Fiorillo comments that:

The set was originally scheduled to include 150 works by the leading designer of actor prints, Utagawa Kunisada unfortunately, it was never completed. Only 72 published designs are known, with 12 by Yoshitora, plus two proof prints and two preparatory drawings, for a total of 76 known compositions. Yoshitora joined the project in 1862 for unconfirmed reasons (possibly to assist an overworked or ailing Kunisada). The series was intended to be the crowning achievement in Kunisada's career, with no effort or expense spared in its size or production… In terms of their quality (beautifully executed block cutting, exceptional colours, embossing, and burnishing), the prints from this series are reminiscent of the deluxe limited editions produced in the smaller chuban format in Osaka during the mid-nineteenth century (most familiar among them are the prints of Hirosada).

The work dragged on throughout the 1860’s, due to illness, the death of Kunisada in 1865 and civil war and revolution in 1868. This print, made one year later, is the last in the series… almost an afterthought, after a four year gap to the previous print. As such it is a rare print. There are very few copies in museum collections and the last one that came up at auction was at Sotheby’s in 2004.

The print shows the actor Bando Mitsugoro as the geisha Miyokichi. The play Hachiman Matsuri Yomiya no Nigiwai, tells the story of the geisha Miyokichi and her love for a disgraced samurai, Shinzaburo. She is in turn loved by the merchant Shinsuke who rescues her from drowning and in gratitude Miyokichi agrees to wed him. When Shinsuke returns with money to buy her contract which he has raised from selling his business, she tells him that she no longer wishes to see him. In shock, Shinsuke uses the money to buy a sword which he then uses in a random killing spree, eventually killing Miyokichi herself. Finally, Shinsuke discovers that Miyokichi is in fact his long lost sister - tragedy indeed.

The print has unfortunately suffered in the last 150 years and is in fairly poor condition. We have priced the piece to reflect this but it remains a stunning design, outstandingly powerful. Colour and impression are fine but the there are surface creases (now flattened) and some soiling. Nevertheless, it is all there… and the print remains a collectible and very rare piece.

Published by Hiranoya Shinzo.

36 x 23.5 cm.