Kunichika, 24 Paragons of the Meiji Restoration - The Schoolroom

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) Twenty-four Paragons of the Meiji Restoration: The Schoolroom, Oban. 1877.

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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 umbrella and imagining a bat draped over his head instead.

In this print which is probably the best of the series, we can see the historical figure and latterly kabuki hero, Sugawara no Michizane played (from an imaginary performance) by the actor Bando Hikusaburo.

Michizane was a nobleman of the ninth century (847-903), deified as God of calligraphy and usually represented riding on a black ox, or as here, clasping to his breast a branch of flowering plum tree. He was a regional governor who achieved high honours in 898 but Michizane was, however, hated by certain courtiers who accused Michizane of plotting against the Emperor, and the minister was exiled to a remote island. As he started on his exile he cast a last glance to his plum trees in bloom, and composed the following poem:

When the eastern breeze passes, 
load her with perfume, 
O blossoms of my plum trees; 
even though the master is far away, never forget the spring.

One of the plum trees there and then uprooted itself and became miraculously transplanted to Chikuzen, where Michizane was going. It is called Tobi Ume, the jumping plum tree. Aside from those facts (some of them) Michizane is remembered in the play, Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami whose fourth act, The Village School, is one of the most famous in kabuki theatre. In this fanciful play Michizane is confronted with what he thinks is the decapitated head of his own child. Kunichika refers to the distressing scene of brutality, fortitude and ‘honour’ in the print. Here the old values of the village school have been replace by modern teaching methods, printed posters and coloured maps. The children yawn in front of the uninspiring teacher and in the foreground Kan Shojo (Michizane) flees clutching a plum branch.

These prints are often in poor condition. This print aside from being the best design is in superb condition, laid on contemporary Japanese album paper; colour and impression are fine. Kunichika's address is in the margin, as was required at the time.

24 x 36 cm.