Hirosada, Life of St Nichiren - Ichikawa Ebizo V as the Boatman Yasaburo and Jitsukawa Ensaburo as Nichiren Shonin

Konishi Hirosada (ca 1810 - 1864) Life of St Nichiren: Ichikawa Ebizo V as the Boatman Yasaburo and Jitsukawa Ensaburo as Nichiren Shonin, 1848. Chuban Diptych.

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Possibly one of Hirosada’s finest diptych compositions, the design of this print is breathtaking. In the teeth of a tremendous storm, a proper tumult of waves, whirlpools and cataracts, is the calm presence of  Nichiren, the founder of a Buddhist sect; his pursuers in the background of the left sheet are overthrown; his boat, himself and his oarsman, a steady focus in a sea of chaos.

Nichiren (1222 - 1282) was a Japanese Buddhist priest, his sect of Nichiren Buddhism differing from other schools of Buddhism in focussing on this world, and in its view that it is the only correct tradition. It also emphasises the importance of individuals taking responsibility for improving themselves. Unsurprisingly, this was seen as arrogant and was unpopular with other priests and sects; and as a result Nichiren spent time in exile and was the subject of assassination attempts. The play Nichiren Shonin Minori no Umi tells the story of his life which, like all hagiographies, is heavily embroidered and contains many ‘improving scenes’; most famously the story of the cormorant fisherman which became the subject of an entire series by Kuniyoshi and various prints by Yoshitoshi. The sect was especially popular with artists, playwrights and actors of the late Edo. Oddly, one of the most famous contemporary Nichiren Buddhists today is the singer and actress Tina Turner, who in the 1993 movie What's Love Got to Do with It?, an autobiographical film about Turner's rise to stardom and her relationship with her abusive husband, chanted the Buddhist Nam Myoho Renge Kyo mantra.

This is perhaps an appropriate print for our current times. In a letter of 1261, Nichiren writes of: ‘a ship to cross a sea of suffering’… here surely is that ship. Hirosada rarely entered into pictures of historic subjects that are not of the stage. This although stylised is nevertheless more ‘naturalistic’. The series illustrates a play, oddly: Nicherin shonin minori no umi. The play is lost… did it ever exist? Or was this simply an excuse to show two popular actors in the tense atmosphere of the Tenpo Reforms.

We have shown another example from this rare series; this diptych is easily the best design of the set of five prints in total. This series is important because it marks the first time that Hirosada used full length figures to illustrate a theatrical scene. From hereon in, his full length figures outnumber his close-up portraits. The scene depicts Nichiren in exile en route to the island of Sado in 1271. A violent storm arose but Nichiren calmed the waves by chanting “hail to the sublime lotus sutra” and his party reached safety.

The colour and impression are fine. Condition is very good - unusually for this date, the print is unbacked. This is a rare print… I cannot find it in any of the major collections. A copy - trimmed - exists in the Ikeda Bunko Library in Japan and it is illustrated full page p. 63 in Roger S Keyes, Hirosada - Printmaker, California State University, 1984.