Toyokuni I, Bando Mitsugoro III as Kakuju

Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) Bando Mitsugoro III as Kakuju, 1812. Oban.

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A very brilliantly preserved kabuki actor portrait, probably of the ‘superstar’ Bando Mitsugoro III as Kakuju, the aunt of the popular kabuki character Kan Shojo. Kan Shojo is the stage name given to an actual noble of the 9th century, Sugawara Michizane. Michizane was an adviser to the Emperor and known to be one of the most erudite, most learned of all men of his generation. Jealous courtiers, a change in the succession and politics of the the 9th century court changed his status and he was eventually disgraced and unfairly exiled. He died of a broken heart and it is there that the really great legends begin… he was said to have returned to wreak havoc on Kyoto and upon his enemies, in the form of a thunder god.

The print is taken from a performance of Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami of 1812. In the play, Kan Shojo is making ready for exile at the house of his aunt (Kakuju). There is a plot to assassinate him which will entail a false escort arriving at cockcrow to make away with him and kill him. To organise the kidnap, a magic ritual is enacted to persuade a cock to crow an hour early. As a separate thread, Kan Shojo has created a lifelike statue of himself so that the family will remember him once he has gone…. inevitably, the statue is substituted during the kidnap and the wrong doers are punished… Kan Shojo leaves to begin his exile.

Perhaps the most surprising feature of actor prints is that despite the apparent beauty and seductiveness of the actress, all of the female roles in kabuki were played by men, or onnagata as they are known. This tradition of male-only roles stems from the seventeenth century and still applies today, in modern kabuki performance.

In this print the actor exaggerates what he sees as the special qualities of a woman, to make the onnagata somehow more of a woman than a real woman… an ideology no less controversial in the early days of the kabuki theatre than it is today. Nevertheless these actors were tremendously popular and prints such as this Toyokuni were highly sought after - as indeed they are today, albeit for different reasons.

This print is over two hundred years old, and has weathered the years very well. The drawing is outstanding, the impression very fine - the fine lines of the black key block are are tight and unbroken. The condition is excellent and the colour is very good, perhaps some fading to the pink block. Album binding holes to the right hand margin, and a very small repaired wormhole to the left.

This is a rare print, unknown in any of the major collections and in museum display condition.

25 x 36 cm.