Kunisada, 36 Selected Poems - Nakamura Utaemon IV as Higuchi no Jiro

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Thirty-six Selected Poems: Nakamura Utaemon IV as Higuchi no Jiro, 1852. Oban.

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This print is from a very highly regarded series by Kunisada. The series title, Comparisons for Thirty-six Selected Poems (Mitate sanjûrokkasen no uchi) tells us that this is meant to be more than a series of actor portraits. Each print shows a kabuki actor in role, these could equally be ‘The Thirty-Six Famous Roles’  - most are easily identifiable as famous kabuki heroes and villains. Kunisada, (as a reminder of the harsh censorship laws of the previous decade, passed in order to encourage a more moral society) chooses instead to illustrate poems from the ‘standardised’ pantheon of traditional Japanese poetry of the early medieval. The series was a lavish exercise in woodblock printing, and Kunisada’s designs are amongst his best actor busts.

The poem is by the tenth century poet Fujiwara no Kanesuke; it reads:

Over Mika's plain,
Gushing forth and flowing free,
Is Izumi's stream.
I do not know if we have met:
Why, then, do I long for her?

Kunisada depicts the actor Nakamura Utaemon IV as Higuchi no Jiro. The character of Jiro is in fact disguised as a boatman, Matsuemon. The strange expression is called the mie - it is a frozen, protracted moment in the solo performance when the actor concentrates with a contorted face to provoke extreme emotion. Disentangling the imagery here, Matsuemon is entangled in a pine tree holding on with his left hand, looking out and gesturing with his right. Behind him is the lake where he has left his boat and the little jetty where his wife, ignorant of his real identity is waiting for him. Beyond that we can see the lanterns of the approaching Genji army who are in pursuit of him, his position betrayed by his father-in-law. We can see him and his father in law in another print by Kunisada. 

The play, Hirakana Seisuiki, even in synopsis is long and complicated. We are concerned with Act III, where Matsuemon is revealed to be a samurai and skilled swordsman… 

Toward evening three rough-looking boatmen visit the house to ask Matsuemon for instructions in the art of sakaro. Matsuemon leaves with them for the river bank where Matsuemon's boat is moored.

As Matsuemon goes on board with the three boatmen and begins to instruct them, they suddenly attack him, saying they have been ordered to arrest him by Kajiwara Kagetoki who knows that Matsuemon is in fact Higuchi Kanemitsu. Matsuemon fights back and beats them to death with an oar one by one. Then he climbs up a large pine tree and, looking out over the countryside, sees that he is surrounded on all sides by the Genji army. (Summary from kabuki21)

Kunisada contrasts the sadness and desperation of Higuchi no Jiro, his love of his home and his wife with the sentiments of the poem. A mitate is a means to set up an open, non prescriptive dialogue between different ideas. Here that dialogue is between the longing of the poem… its love and its quiet sadness against the desperation of the figure and his clinging, literally to the land.

The print is in very fine condition, colour extremely pristine, and impression fine.

Publisher: Iseya Kanekichi.

37cm x 26cm.