Kunichika, 24 Paragons of the Meiji Restoration - Shoes

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) Twenty-four Paragons of the Meiji Restoration: Shoes, 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 umbrella and imagining a bat draped over his head instead.

This has proved a tricky print to decipher, requiring a detour to the Metropolitan Museum New York where the design appears engraved on a bronzed inro of the 17th century. The play from which the print is derived is Ikanimo Choryo Yumeno ukihashi,  and Kunichika depicts Sawamura Sojuro in the main picture in the role of Choryo. The story is derived from Chinese legend where the character is called Kan Zhang Liang. The Japanese version follows the events. Choryo is an exiled strategist who meets an aged sage by a river.  The sage kicks off his shoe and demands that the young man pick it up. The old man tells Choryo to meet him at the same place in five days time where the same event occurs. On the third occasion that the old man kicks his shoe in the river, Choryo is obliged to wrestle a water dragon in order to retrieve it. The old man reveals that he is Kosekko, a sage and that the dragon was the goddess Kannon, come there to test his courage. He hands Choryo a scroll of the secrets of warfare and strategy. Choryo uses the wisdom of the scroll to unite the land thirteen years later and the old man is drawn up into the celestial light and turned into a yellow rock.

Kunichika pictures the whole scene with great economy. We see the actor Sawamura Sojuro offering up the Chinese slipper, the tail of the water dragon on the right, and the merest splash of a wave in the bottom left corner. Choryo has a great jewelled sword at his side. In the square cartouche, in surreal contrast to the main scene, we see a modern (Meiji) shoe shop and inside we can make out women and men trying on mass produced or imported shoes. Here of course Kunichika is contrasting the hard won shoe from legend, an object of dignity and bravery, against the casual ease of the disposable modern world… how modern! How very contemporary!

The print is full size, with a generous top margin. Kunichika's address is printed in the left hand margin. The print is unbacked and the colour, condition and impression are as new. A very good and intriguing design in fine condition.

24 x 36 cm.