Kunimasu (Sadamasu), Actor in the Role of Hayano Kanpei, from the Kanadehon Chushingura

Utagawa Kunimasu (Sadamasu) (active 1834 - 1854) Actor in the Role of Hayano Kanpei, from the Kanadehon Chushingura, Deluxe Chuban. c1849.

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This is a fine print by the highly regarded Osaka artist, Kunimasu, formerly Sadamasu. Not too much is known about him, but it is widely considered that he was a wealthy man - possibly a merchant or shipbuilder - who was capable of funding his art career by other means. He was the teacher of the great Hirosada and a pupil of Kunisada in Edo, changing his name when Kunisada changed his own name to Toyokuni III.

His work is outstanding, often - as in this case - exquisitely deluxe, richly embellished and delicately drawn. This print is really a masterpiece of woodblock printing. Despite its chuban size (or perhaps because of it) the work has a magical quality… we are perhaps spoiled by digital technology but it seems inconceivable that the complexity, skill, planning and execution required to create this print should have been committed to an essentially ephemeral piece and only made in a short print run at that. Its rarity is beyond question - I cannot find another copy anywhere. The cartouches tell us only the artist’s name - bottom left - and the character portrayed - Hayano Kanpei.

The great revenge drama of Japanese theatre - the Kanadehon Chushingura of 1848 - is the stage dramatisation of a real incident that occurred in 1702. Because of the stringent censorship at the time, preventing the portrayal of recent events, the setting and many of the characters have been transposed to the fifteenth century. Hence the subject of the play - the enforced suicide of feudal Lord Asano of Ako and the revenge of 47 of his now redundant retainers (ronin) - becomes the suicide of Lord Enya Hangen, a character borrowed from another story and embroidered to fit the role. Of course, theatre audiences and the disenchanted Edo towns people would have have known all of this and to emphasise the point, actors and artists were comfortable to use the Asano family crest on their cobbled together stage persona. Hayano Kanpei is the fictitious name in the play for the real-life Kayano Sanpei, a young retainer of Asano's, who was caught in the dilemma of agreeing to be part of the revenge plot against Kira and then being offered into the service of another lord by his parents.  Trapped in a situation where he will either disgrace his family by not fulfilling their offer of his service or disgracing himself by not fulfilling his pledge of revenge, he commits suicide.

The print is in pristine, near perfect condition. Full size with complete margins and Japanese album paper backing. Much of the print is deeply incised with striking embossing to the cream straw overcoat. The rain is printed in silver which retains its metallic reflectivity even after close on two centuries of wear. Elsewhere in the print complex patterns vie with impossibly detailed overprinting, creating a kaleidoscope of colours and textures. A magnificent, deluxe, limited edition Osaka print of outstanding quality.

18.5 x 25 cm.