Toyokuni I, Bando Mitsugoro and Seki Sanjuro in Fuwa Banzaemon

Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) Bando Mitzugoro and Seki Sanjuro in Fuwa Banzaemon, probably performing in Satsuki no Fuji Soga Hatsuyume, c1820. Oban triptych.

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This masterpiece triptych is filled with the joy of Toyokuni’s draughtsmanship, the delirious quality of the design… those moonlit trees, the kanji hanging in the night air as if written by some magical finger, and of course the wonderful figures, especially the contortions of the two on the left hand page. We know the identities of the actors here… reading from left, Arashi Kanjuro, Segawa Kikunosuke, Seki Sanjuro and the famous Bando Mitsugoro.

It is tempting to ascribe the play to a scene from Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami ("Sugawara and the Secrets of Calligraphy"),  a play set in the 9th century, and based on the life of Heian period court noble and government official Sugawara no Michizane (referred to as Kan Shōjō in the play), who was exiled to Kyushu when he lost favour at court and was falsely accused of conspiring to seize the throne. Crucially in the play there is a scene where two of the brothers in pursuit of stolen heirlooms and a mutual lover bump into each other in the Yoshiwara whilst wearing the sedge hats of mendicant priests - commonly used by samurai to conceal their identities. This famous scene is often illustrated by ukiyo-e artists but I am a little disinclined to believe it to be this image.

Unfortunately Toyokuni left us very few clues, and in fact the only other known copy of the print is in the Waseda Theatre Museum in Japan and they too are unable to identify the performance. I am more inclined to think it might be the play, Satsuki no Fuji Soga no hatsuyume, performed at the Ichimura theatre in 1824. Both Mitzugoro and Seki Sanjuro appear in the performance, and there is a compelling similarity with a print in the Museum of Fine Art in Boston by Toyokuni’s pupil, Kunisada, showing a nearly identical scene. 

Sadly the plot of Satsuki no Fuji Soga no hatsuyume seems to not have survived. As is so often the case, we are left with fragments (often vanishing fast) of a world we can barely imagine. The title is suggestive of the great ‘Dream of the Soga Brothers’. In Japan the  first dream of the New Year is referred to as hatsuyume  and is associated with the dream that the Soga Brothers would have on Mount Fuji that predicted they would revenge themselves on  the assassin of their father. I like the fact that if this identification is correct (and I think that it is), then we have in 1824 the great Toyokuni I producing one of his last triptychs and his stellar pupil Kunisada producing a similar work of the same performance close to the start of his career.

Toyokuni I triptychs in this condition are very rare, and this is an especially fine one. Unbacked, in very good condition with strong colour and fine impression. Album binding holes on each sheet, light soil and wear to the lower margin. Altogether a fine and important print.

74 x 36 cm.