Kunisada, Hagoita with Sawamura Tossho as Nippon Daemon

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Hagoita with Sawamura Tossho as Nippon Daemon, 1862. Oban.

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The essay that accompanies this selection looks at how Japanese artists set the subject of the print - the figure - against the background in order to gain effect from either context or design. This print and its fellow are outstanding examples of the effective use of figure and ground. The prints represent the equipment used in the Japanese game of Hanetsuki. The game is played in the New Year and is somewhat like badminton, but played without a net, using solid wooden paddles called hagoita and brightly coloured shuttlecocks. The aim is to keep the shuttlecock in the air for as long as possible in order to gain protection from mosquitoes in the coming year. The bright hovering shuttlecocks obviously in some way represent the mosquito and the batting action of the hagoita is also obvious. Traditionally the bats are decorated with pictures - often kabuki actors - and these are sold at special fairs called Hagoitaichi at Asakusa Temple in December.

The print is remarkable. A very special print effect called itama-mokuhan (imitation woodgrain) has been used to decorate the back of the bat. A superb actor portrait is superimposed upon that surface. The sides of the bat are rendered in grained three dimensions, the background to the whole image is a wonderful and brilliant bokashi shading and the brilliant shuttlecocks and balls decorate the foreground. The print is a masterpiece of detail and design, truly outstanding.

The print shows one of the great bandit leaders of Japanese folklore and kabuki theatre… Nippon Daemon. Daemon appears in many stories and plays of the Edo period, mostly those associated with the strange cross-dressing character of Benten Kozo. The original play revolves around a band of five thieves, based on real bandits and criminals of Edo period Osaka: Karigane Bunshichi, An no Heibei, Gokuin Sen'emon, Kaminari Shokuro and Hotei Ichiemon. The name of Nippon Daemon, the leader of the band, is taken from that of Nippon Saemon, who was captured and executed in 1747. The character of Benten Kozo, meanwhile, is said to have been based upon a servant at the Iwamoto-in temple on Enoshima, an island dedicated to the goddess Benten.

Interestingly, the great Meiji artist and pupil of Kunisada, Kunichika, produced a series in imitation in 1888.

This is an outstanding piece of woodblock art. Brilliant carving, design and effects. Colour, condition and impression are all outstanding.

36cm x 25cm.