Hirosada, Jitsukawa Enzaburo I as Inue Shinbei - Hakkenden

Konishi Hirosada (ca 1810 - 1864) Jitsukawa Enzaburo I as Inue Shinbei in the drama  Hakkenden, 1850. Deluxe Chuban.

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Many of the current selection of deluxe prints… luxurious prints, or ‘decadent’ prints as they came to be known by ascetic western collectors, come from the Japanese port city of Osaka. Osaka prints are typically distinguished by the smaller chuban format, 19cm x 25cm, and by their sometimes extraordinary richness, elegance and outstanding design. It is not true that all Osaka prints or, kamigata-e were made in the chuban format but those after 1840 were nearly all of this smaller size.

Osaka theatre goers were fanatical followers of the cult kabuki actors and dramatists of the nineteenth century. Fortunes were spent in entertaining actors, attending performances and commissioning the very finest prints… mementos of performances and vehicles for poetry societies, wealthy coteries and clubs that were appreciative of actors' sensibilities.  After 1842, in an attempt to rein in these decadent excesses, a series of laws - the ‘Tenpo Reforms’ - banned the larger oban sized print altogether. Despite this (or because of it) the number of artists and the number of known prints that each artist produced actively increased. Although restrictions had eased by the time that this print was produced in 1850, many of the habits engendered by the reforms endured. The smaller scale was maintained in Osaka for decades to come… ostensibly these prints were more discreet, easier to conceal, but as this minor masterpiece and others in this selection illustrate, the intensity of colour and the sheer density of pattern at this scale produced a dazzling hyper-realism popular with collectors. The smaller scale also allowed the lavish use of metallic and other expensive pigments that would have been prohibitive on a larger scale.

Not only the physical size of the print was affected by these punitive laws; the subject matter needed to appear morally sound. This print is one of a series of eight prints portraying the characters in the popular story, the Hakkenden, or The Story of the Eight Dog Heroes. The ‘Hakkenden’ are eight brothers who feature in the extraordinary 106 volume novel The Eight Dog Chronicles, written by Kyokutei Bakin (1767 - 1848). The complex plot centres on the eight offspring of a supernatural marriage between a princess and her father’s dog. Shamed at the birth of her children, she kills herself and the eight beads of her rosary, each representing a Buddhist virtue, become crystal orbs and disperse, the children being reborn to normal mothers sixteen years later. They reunite as adult ‘superheroes’, their names all beginning with the syllable for ‘dog’ (inu). Each brother embraced one of the confucian virtues: Inue Shinbei Masashi  (his full name) expressed sympathy and benevolence.

It is scarcely believable that these confident, fluid shapes are cut from unforgiving hard wood; the colours and lines on the print are unlike western colour woodblocks... unlike even Edo woodblocks. When in mint condition, such as this print, the colours sing with a harmony and vibrancy that is hard to describe… somewhere between an enamel box and  stained glass window. Colour and condition are all fine; Shinbei holds an iron fan which is brightly burnished.

Published by Kukado Konishi.

19 x 25.5 cm.