Kunichika, 3 Actors from Otokodate Mutsu no Hatsuyuki - Onoe Kikugoro as Tenjin Kichizo

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) Three Actors from the Play Otokodate Mutsu no Hatsuyuki: Onoe Kikugoro as Tenjin Kichizo, 1870. Oban.

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This short series, more a set of prints, commemorate the October 1870 performance of Otokodate Mutsu no Hatsuyuki. The text of the play is sadly lost; the title is a giveaway though. The first word, otokodate, refers to the street bandits, swaggering tough guys, hooligans who roamed the streets of Edo (Tokyo) in the mid nineteenth century, forming loose associations of street gangs, rivals in love and territory.

These violent gangs were in fact romanticised by the very people they frequently terrorised.  Court records exist from this time that show the reckless, antisocial behaviour of the otokodate - stealing from shopkeepers, knifing people in the street, fighting and so on - and the punishments of the time, which were frequently summary execution at the gruesome execution grounds where thieves were beheaded or even crucified. What look like sword scabbards poking out from behind the men’s cloaks are in fact large iron flutes. There were many prohibitions on commoners carrying swords and daggers and many otokodate and ronin got round this by having common objects made from tempered metals or iron. A good example is the sharpened metal fan, painted to look like a real one but actually quite lethal. These iron flutes of course acted as very potent clubs.

Nevertheless, the kabuki theatre revelled in spine-tingling plays about these rival gangs and the great kabuki actors of the day played swaggering, tragic, doomed youth to adoring audiences. This play was almost certainly based on real events of the time. Each character is shown against a  brightly coloured background. Behind each head is a folded booklet detailing their roles and careers.

Kunichika was fond of these gang prints and produced various short series such as this is one. We do not know the fate of Tenjin Kichizo or the other members of the gang. Their lives were gruesome and exciting enough to be commemorated in a drama and one suspects that they like so many others ended up in the execution grounds for petty offences.

Overall colour and impression are very good. Some creases, mainly flattened, and light wear.

26 x 37 cm.