Kunisada, Nakamura Shikan as Nekko no Yokizo

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Nakamura Shikan as Nekko no Yokizo, 1830. Oban.

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What a striking print… a really interesting Kunisada print of an obscure character in a play that appears lost. The print is of a superstar kabuki actor, Nakamura Shikan II, playing the part of Nekko no Yokizo, a woodcutter - unsurprisingly given the size of his axe. It is possible that the role is imaginary - the nearest match to this print is from a deluxe surimono in Brooklyn Museum, privately commissioned, which might suggest that the part was inspired by commission rather than an actual performance.

Identifying the print is tricky. The name of the actor is visible in the upper right, in the largest of the kanji. The signature of Kunisada is lower left. The character albeit played here by Ichikawa Danjuro is also known from a composite print by Kunisada from 1833 in the Art Institute Chicago. Helpfully, this print places him in a mysterious, lost play involving the child hero Kintaro, the ‘Golden Boy’ and his mother, Yama-uba all of whom appear in the Chicago print.

Kintaro is a tremendous hero from medieval Japan. His father was a disgraced samurai, his mother… pregnant with the boy, takes refuge from persecution in the mountains and brings the boy up in the wilderness. His companions are all wild beasts… bears and monkeys and rabbits and the child becomes superhuman in strength, beating the local woodcutters at tree cutting. Confusingly he is also known as Kaidomaru and Kintoki. As an adult he became a famous and fierce samurai and retainer of Minamoto no Yorimitsu (Raiko) and the boyhood legend has over time become conflated with the real warrior and historical figure Sakata no Kintoki. He is often depicted with an enormous axe and this print might relate to the legend that his future employer, Minamoto no Yorimitsu, had sent a retainer to investigate the famous wild child and this retainer had arrived in the guise of a woodcutter, challenging the boy to a fight before revealing himself and taking the child to court with him.

Either way, this is a finely drawn and beautifully composed print. Colour and impression are fine, condition is very good with only minor trimming to the left edge and some peripheral wear and thinning at the right-hand margin. Minor scuffing.

25 x 35.5 cm.