Kunichika, The Starlight Through the Trees and The Deer Piper of Hakone

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900). A Scene From The Starlight through the Trees and the Deer Piper of Hakone, 1880. Oban triptych.

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This very striking later triptych by Kunichika is a complex image taken from the revival of the kabuki theatre in the post revolutionary Meiji period. The play, Konoma no Hoshi Hakone no Shikabue ("The Starlight through the Trees and the Deer Piper of Hakone") is seemingly lost and we have to scour different sources to make out what we are looking at. There is an obscure reference to the title in Japanese Literature in the Meiji Era edited by Yoshie Okazaki, which describes this scene as being indicative of a new rationalism… ‘in which the apparition of a murdered woman is interpreted as a symptom of neurosis’… presumably as opposed to the Edo assumption that the apparition of a dead woman was just that!

The subject of the play appears to be the cursed swords of sword maker, Muramasa. Muramasa was a skilful smith but possessing a violent and ill-balanced mind, verging on madness, that was supposed to have passed into his blades. They were popularly believed to hunger for blood and to impel their warrior to commit murder or suicide. It has also been told that once drawn, a Muramasa blade has to draw blood before it can be returned to its scabbard, even to the point of forcing its wielder to wound himself or commit suicide. Thus, it is thought of as a demonic cursed blade that creates bloodlust in those who wield it. The ghost in the centre is that of a courtesan played by Onoe Kikugoro.

The flute player at left - you can just make out the long Japanese flute in his hand - is played by Nakamura Sojuro, the crazed sword owner at the right by Ichikawa Sadanji. The wonderful thing about this print is the complex use of space, especially in the right hand sheet. Sadanji lifts the side of the andon (oil lamp) - attracting a dragonfly - to reveal a ‘window’ onto the supernatural space occupied by the ghost in the centre panel. The figure on the left, separate to the other figures observes the neurosis of the sword owner. An interesting, psychological ghost scene of great subtlety. Colour, condition and impression are all very good. The work is unbacked and the sheets unattached and full size.

Publisher: Fukuda Kumajiro.

74 x 36.5 cm.