Kunichika, Ichikawa Danjuro in Ura-Omote Yanagi no Uchiwa-e

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) Ichikawa Danjuro in a scene from Ura-omote Yanagi no Uchiwa-e, 1875. Oban triptych.

Click here for a full-size image.

This complicated, obscure, difficult print deals with the fifth shogun, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi (pictured left played by Danjuro) and his murder at the hands of his concubine in 1709. The play from which it is taken - The Front and Back of the Willow Painting on the Fan - pairs the historic story of courtly life, (ura) with the humdrum life of the Edo townspeople  (the omote). By way of detailed explanation, I shall quote from The Life and Afterlives of Hanabusa Itcho, Artist Rebel of Edo by Miriam Wattles:

In Ura-omote yanagi no uchiwa-e, the world (sekai) is split into a “back” (ura) of lords and ladies of the past and a “front” (omote) of present-day townspeople, as was common in Kabuki at the time. In this way, events unfold in layers. The basic drama, derived from the anonymous manuscript Gokoku onna taiheiki (Protecting the Realm: The Women’s Taiheiki), is once more about an intrigue over succession. The characters equivalent to Osa-me and Yanagisawa (in both the front and back worlds) try to gain position and wealth through an affair and the conception of an illegitimate child with the shogun. The plot, which involves both omote and ura versions of Tsunayoshi, Yanagisawa, and Osame, ultimately results in the death of the shogun and his lady. Although Itchō is not a character (as he was in the Nanboku play), Taga Chōko is the focus of discussion in several scenes as the notorious painter of Asazuma Boat.

A page from the illustrated playbill from the 1875 performance depicts the ura realm of the past at the top, and the townspeople’s omote world at the bottom (fig. 89). As the cloudlike bubble emanating from the woman seated in the house indicates, the scene that includes the Asazuma boat is distanced as merely a dream. In the dream, Osame is seated in the boat, flanked by Tsunayoshi, who poles it, and Yanagisawa, at whom she casts a knowing glance. Ohara maidens dance on the shore to the left (a performance within the performance), while in the background someone beats a dog. Within the play, this reference to Tsunayoshi’s hated Laws of Compassion turns out to be merely a performance as well.

Toyohara Kunichika (1835–1900), a member of the Utagawa school who specialized in actor prints during the Meiji period, depicted the debut of this Kabuki performance in a triptych that was sold in ukiyo-e shops for one sen per sheet.

Here we have the shogun in the left sheet played by Ichikawa Danjuro... look closely and you see the advancing concubine, knife drawn, ready to strike. The onnagata with the fan is played by Iwai Hanshirō, her companion played by Ichikawa Monnosuke. The print is a striking example of the exuberance and modernity of Meiji printmaking.

The condition, colour and impression are all fine… fresh and clean without toning. The prints are unbacked and unattached, the condition, whilst outstanding obscures a major registration flaw in the blue block of the left hand sheet, something that shows the human quality of the process and adds rather than detracts from the interest.

73 x 36 cm.