Kunichika, 24 Paragons of the Meiji Restoration - Firemen

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) Twenty-four Paragons of the Meiji Restoration: Firemen, 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 example, Kunichika as before, uses a kabuki actor but in an imagined role. Here Iwai Hanshiro plays the part of the tragic girl, Yaoya Oshichi. Oshichi was a young greengrocer's daughter born in 1667 whose family took refuge in a temple following one of the frequent Tokyo (Edo) fires. There she met and fell in love with a temple page, Kichisa. Oshichi thought that if she started another fire she would be able to shelter longer and stay with the boy she loved. Sadly, her arson was witnessed by others and she was found guilty and burnt at the stake as punishment. There was subsequently a great deal of sympathy for the fate of the girl, principally because of her age. The kabuki drama was based on her life and death; however the circumstances were changed to show Oshichi sounding the temple fire alarm in order to see Kichisa. The conclusion remained the same since the false sounding of the alarm was also punishable by death. The Toshidama gallery has an example of the same scene but in triptych form. 

In the inset panel, a modern Meiji fire truck can be seen and a coil of smoke rising from a distant hillside. The series 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 all excellent, there is some creasing and some thinning of the paper in places. The border is printed yellow and not yellowed with age.

37 x 25.5 cm.