Kunichika, 36 Views of the Eastern Capital - Tattooed Benten

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) Thirty-six Views of the Eastern Capital: Tattooed Benten, 1864. Oban.

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A very nice and early Kunichika print of a tattooed subject - the tattoo visible on the upper left arm - that is interesting because it comes from a series of prints made in collaboration with Kunichika’s teacher and boss, Kunisada. Kunisada designed 16 prints and Kunichika 21 prints. The backgrounds to the Kunisada set were designed by another pupil, Kunihisa. The set was made in Kunisada’s last year - he died in 1865 aged 79.

The idea of such pictures developed in the 1840’s as a means for artists such as Kunisada to continue to produce theatre subjects against a backdrop of moral censorship. A view or travel scene was set behind the subject - an actor - and the  piece was confusingly given an anodyne title such as Views of the Eastern Capital with no reference made to as it were, the elephant in the room. Although Edo was drifting towards open revolution in 1864, censorship was not such an issue and this series and others like it had by this time become a genre in their own right… almost like a puzzle picture: what connects the actor or the performance to a particular scene? Much of that popular folk knowledge is lost to us these days but the prints live on, depite the ravages of time and war and natural disaster.

In this case we see a view of Shinobazu Pond in the Ueno Park in Edo, now Tokyo… it is still there. In front is a half length portrait of the actor Ichimura Kakitsu as the bandit Benten Kozo Kikunosuke. The play from which the scene is taken, Aoto Zoshi Hana no Nishikie,  premiered at the Ichimura-za in Edo in 1862. Loosely based on real characters and events from the 18th century, it tells the story of five bandits, petty thieves like Benten Kozo. In the first act, Benten disguises himself as a woman in order to steal a valuable temple burner… the remainder of the play sees him still disguised, attempting to steal from a fabric shop owner in Edo. When this ploy is uncovered and he flees, he rejoins his cohorts at the river where they are surrounded by the police. Benten makes his escape to the roof of the nearby temple but is cornered. After a fight he takes his own life, expiring on the sloping tiles prior to a spectacular theatrical effect that sees the roof lift off to reveal Nippon Daemon, the bandit chief. 

A very fine early Kunichika print showing his tremendous youthful promise. Slight trimming to the top. Embossing to the background, the cartouche and the patterning to the kimono. Unbacked. Some slight soiling to the bottom margin; otherwise fine impression, condition and colour.

36 x 24 cm.