Kunichika, Nakamura Shikan as the Fox Tadanobu

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) Nakamura Shikan as The Fox Tadanobu, 1867. Vertical oban diptych.

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This stunning vertical diptych by Kunichika is from the play, Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees. It’s a wonderful print, Kunichika deftly catches the light movement that the kabuki actor makes in the demanding transition from man to fox. Vertical diptychs were unusual formats for ukiyo-e prints. Actor kakemono-e as they are called are even rarer. Kunichika only produced a handful and other Meiji artists like Yoshitoshi maybe only a dozen. This particular print is exceptionally rare. There is a copy in the Waseda University Theatre Museum in Japan, and I know of no others. 

Of course collectors of ukiyo-e will be familiar with the subject, the supernatural fox that guides the great samurai general Yoshitsune to safety - the subject was a great favourite among print artists. This print is one of those images that is neither an historic rendering nor the record of a theatrical performance as such. The fox character wears an elaborate costume. In the complex realm of representation, Kunichika has drawn a fox in ‘human' form. It is both fox and man… in Kunichika’s mind it is an actor wearing a suit, in the viewer’s mind the figure hovers between two worlds, much as the character himself does.

The story is derived from the kabuki drama Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees. Yoshitsune is the great warrior hero who established the Minamoto Clan’s pre-eminence in Japan in the middle ages. Yoshitsune is usually pictured fighting the warrior monk Benkei at Gojo Bridge.   Benkei becomes his loyal protector and between them they lead an armed rebellion against the Taira, establishing Yoshitsune’s brother as the first national Shogun - a position that would last 650 years until the19th century. Yoshitsune was betrayed by his brother and later killed himself and his family at the siege of Koromogawa no tate.

The play establishes an entirely fanciful link to the folk hero and shape-shifter Tadanobu. Tadanobu is an adopted name and the character is in fact a kitsune - a shape shifting fox-spirit. Late in the play when Tadanobu is challenged he reveals that the Hatsune drum carried by Yoshitsune is made from the skins of his parents who died four hundred years previously. He has taken the form of Tadanobu in order to retrieve the object. At the conclusion, the fox spirit departs dramatically to a flamboyant dance, returning later to defend Yoshitsune once more. In the play itself there is no mention of a conflict between Benkei and the fox and one has to assume that Kunichika has contrived the match in order to emphasise the quality of the word play and the poem.

Confusingly, the subtitle, A Collection of Thirty-six Poems, suggest a large suite of prints on this subject and format. I know of one other, also derived from the same play.

This print is an outstanding  design, the colours and the drawing and production are quite superb. As was common with this subject, the white of the fox fur is deeply embossed. The colour and impression are fine. The condition is very fresh overall but there has been quite bad surface soiling and wear to both sheets at the joint. This does not in fact detract so much from the bold colours and tremendous design.

Published by Gusokuya.

24 x 69.5 cm.