Kunichika, 100 Roles of Baiko - Gosho no Gorozo

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) One Hundred Roles of Baiko: Gosho no Gorozo, 1893. Deluxe Oban.

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A perfect print with which to open a show of kabuki prints, or yakusha-e as they are also known. Sebastian Izzard described Kunisada’s late actor portrait series of okubi-e as ‘a monument to his career’. It is justifiable to say that the two series One Hundred Roles of Baiko and its companion One Hundred Roles of Ichikawa Danjuro X are Kunichika’s equivalent late, and crowning achievement. This magnificent series, of which this is one of the best and the richest designs, conveys Kunichika’s mastery of role and character depiction better than any other. It prompted the celebrated Kunichika scholar, Kojima Usui to acclaim Kunichika as ‘the premier figure since Sharaku in actor portraiture’. A decent Sharaku starts at around $50,000 - luckily for us a decent Kunichika from this series is considerably more affordable.

Kunichika was an aficionado and intimate of all the great kabuki actors of the day. The actor Onoe Kikugoro V was one such a friend. He was a hugely successful actor who took the stage name Baiko from the pen name of his ancestor Onoe Kikugoro, who died in 1783. In 1893 Kunichika was commissioned by the publisher Fukuda Kumajiro to produce 100 prints celebrating the roles of the great actor. The series (like the Danjuro) was printed on the finest paper and used all of the deluxe techniques available to artists at the time; the surfaces are sprinkled with mica (encrusted in this case) and lavishly embossed and burnished with deep reflective blacks and shomenzuri patterns.

The prints are designed to an identical format. The bulk of the sheet shows Baiko in a typical scene from the role; often the pose is a dramatic and emotional moment in the drama. Baiko was a commoner and espoused the popular roles of the time that showed the travails of the common Edo townsman. Many of the prints also show roles that no longer use traditional scenes or props… some of the characters sport modern, western cropped hair styles, known as zangiri mono or derive from dramas that illustrate characters from the Meiji revolution. This flexibility made Baiko a popular and modern actor of his time.

The upper part of the sheet is devoted to a scene from the particular play, featuring a ‘supporting actor’. Within that division there is a further sub-division describing the play and the plot, and in black on the far right is the series title.

Kunichika portrays the tragic character of Gosho-no-Gorozo. The play from which this print derives is  Soga Moyô Tateshi no Goshozome. The play is entirely typical of kabuki plots at the time (1887) telling the story of doomed lovers trapped in a cycle of debt and duty, unable to escape either and finally enduring death and suicide. Of course these dramas reflected the very stressful urban existence of the audiences at the time and were hence, wildly popular. A samurai, Tomoenojo, has bankrupted himself through his love of the prostitute Oshu. Gorozo is his loyal, former servant, who has guaranteed a debt due to be paid on the night that the action take place. His wife, Satsuki knows that he will commit suicide in shame if he does not find the money. The villain, Doemon - here seen in the upper cartouche played by the actor Nakamura Shikan - offers to lend her the money if she divorces her husband.

The action plays out in true tragic way - Gorozo denounces Satsuki and strikes her with the large flute seen on the left of print; the prostitute at the heart of the mess appears and leaves with Doemon, but dressed in Satsuki’s clothes. Inevitably, Gorozo stabs Oshu to death, thinking it to be his wife before discovering a letter from her explaining her sacrifice to him. In despair he takes his life knowing he has murdered an innocent woman. Satsuki arrives too late and also stabs herself in despair before they both expire playing a duet for Oshu’s departed soul.

A great print, beautifully drawn and realised and exquisitely printed. Gorozo wears a stunning design of a dragon on his outer garments, and the print is burnished, embossed and sprinkled with mica. In perfect condition, full size, colour, condition and impression are all very fine.

Published by Fukuda Kumajiro.

38cm x 26 cm.