Toyokuni I, Bando Mitsugoro, Iwai Hanshiro and Ichikawa Yoazo

Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) Bando Mitsugoro, Iwai Hanshiro and Ichikawa Yoazo, 1804. Oban.

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A superb print with outstanding colour by Toyokuni I, the founder of the Utagawa School and the father of nineteenth century ukiyo-e. Really, without the business sense and the drive of Toyokuni, it is hard to imagine how the art of woodblock printing could have flourished to the extent that it did. Through the skilful use of his connections with publishers, Toyokuni I enlarged the role of woodblock prints, especially for the kabuki market. His pupils, Kuniyoshi and Kunisada, were to dominate the entire discipline within a decade. Prints from the eighteenth and the first decade of the nineteenth centuries by Toyokuni I are very sought after. The quality of his work is thought by some to have deteriorated as he became more commercial and more successful. Prints from his early period, such as this one, suffer greatly from unstable pigment and dyes and fragile paper, not to say the fact that a print like this is now two hundred and twenty years old.

Actors Bando Mitsugoro, Iwai Hanshiro and Ichikawa Yoazo were acting together in 1804. This print is probably from an obscure tragedy: Ôtô-no-Miya and the Armour of the Rising Sun.  The action is set in the Genko War. Emperor Godaigo’s wife and eight year-old son are being held captive; a rebuff to one of her captors leads tragically to the command to kill the child out of spite. The order is carried in the form of a cryptic message written on the side of a lantern. The square shaped lantern is called a kiro-toro  and we see it being carried by the central figure in the composition. The boy’s mother, princess Hanazono (played by Iwai Hanshiro) looks on. In the end, the play moves from scene to scene with protagonists substituting their own children for the dubious honour of sacrifice, it falling to the henchman Tarozaemon to behead his own grandson out of duty and service. This scene is from the only surviving act and is called ‘The Handing of the Lantern’.

It is a really tremendous print from Toyokuni I. Unbacked, colour and impression are very fine, the colours are very fresh and the print is enriched with embossing. Some trimming to the lower and right-hand margins, thinning to the paper with some professional strengthening to the margins; otherwise condition very good except for a centrefold. The print is rare, there is only one other known copy in Japan and this is of very poor quality.

24 x 34.5 cm.