Kunichika, 24 Paragons of the Meiji Restoration - Chairs

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) Twenty-four Paragons of the Meiji Restoration - Chairs: Nakamura Shikan as Nozure Gosuke, 1877. Oban.

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As the other examples from this series show, traditional kabuki roles and pastimes are reimagined as modern equivalents in a satirical play on the traditional woodblock theme of Twenty-four Paragons of Filial Piety. This little known series, more than almost any other ukiyo-e print series, displays the conflict in Meiji culture between modernity and tradition. The series as a whole takes twenty-four examples of activities which have been 'modernised' under the Meiji Restoration. Kunichika then goes on to satirise each activity; in some cases showing the confusion of say, a samurai struggling to understand a western umberella and imagining a bat draped over his head instead.

In this print, Kunichika has drawn the actor Nakamura Shikan in the role of Nozure Gosuke. Gosuke is the main character in the kabuki play Sui bodai godo no Nozarashi, a chivalrous man who fought for the oppressed against the oppressor. It is said that he wore a kimono adorned with a pattern of weather-beaten (nozarashi) skulls because he was committed to getting people out of trouble ‘as if pulling grass out of the eyes of weather-beaten skulls’. You can make out the stylised skulls in his dress. The purpose of the piece, (other than showing the actor) is the cartouche which illustrates a man in western dress surrounded by distinctly uncomfortable looking chairs… as opposed to the sprawling figure of the foreground bandit.

The print neatly shows the extreme discomfort that some people in Japan felt with the modernisation programme of the Meiji Emperor. There was a real longing for the dignity and the romance of the past and genuine distaste for western ideas which were considered demeaning and base. The Meiji restoration in 1868 was the cause of civil war skirmishes and some unpopularity amongst the Japanese public. Part of the country (principally the merchants) were enthusiastic about the new chances that open trade with the west would bring. Others, who were more traditional, feared the erosion of Japanese identity and were deeply suspicious about modern innovation. This print is a parodic manifestation of that anxiety and distaste.

The print is from a rare series and is in fair condition. Colour and impression are good but there is evidence of creasing and scuffing. The border is printed yellow and not yellowed with age. There is a copy of this print in the George S Bonn Collection.

24.5 x 36 cm.