Kunisada, Ichikawa Kodanji IV as Yaoya Oshichi

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Ichikawa Kodanji IV as Yaoya Oshichi, 1856. Vertical Oban Diptych.

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This spectacular print is a rare survivor indeed, an ukiyo-e masterpiece and an important early rendition of a kabuki success. It sings with colour, bravura and flair. Really, a remarkable thing. The figures are set with tremendous force against the great black three dimensional grid of an Edo fire tower… a great joy to hold and one other of only two copies known in public collections. These spectacular vertical oban diptychs were developed by Kunisada with spectacular results, following the influence of Osaka printmakers in the first half of the century. Yoshitoshi produced many prints in this format, most spectacularly, his own version of this design by Kunisada.

The design commemorates the first performance of Yushima no Kakegaku at the Ichimuraza in 1856. The subject of the play and therefore the print is  Yaoya Oshichi - seen at the top of the upper sheet as a floating figure in front of the imposing, martial timbers of the fire tower. Oshichi was a 16 year-old girl, daughter of a vegetable store (yaoya in Japanese) owner, living in Edo. In 1681 Oshichi fell in love with a young priest whom she met at his temple while seeking shelter from a large fire. Hoping to see him again in 1682, she set fire to her own home, causing a massive blaze that destroyed a huge section of Edo. She was arrested, tried and condemned to death for arson. She was burnt alive to pay for her crime. Her grave is located in a temple in the district of Hakusan in Tokyo. Yaoya Oshichi became a legend and a leading character in several kabuki plays. Her story was first told though on the puppet (bunraku) stage as far back as 1773.

We are only concerned with the second act of the play - the final piece consists of two plays stitched together. In act two, the drama follows real events fairly faithfully. Oshichi’s love of Kichisa, the young priest, leads her to an act of desperation that will cost her her life. In order to open the city gates so that a stolen sword in the possession of her servant, might be given to Kichisa she climbs the fire tower and beats on the warning drum. Kichisa is not a trainee priest but heir to a fortune and he is required to reclaim the heirloom sword by sunrise or take his own life for failing. We see her aloft - played by Ichikawa Kodanji IV -  but as if falling to the ground from the drum tower. The strange pose denotes that during this act, the actor pretends to be a bunraku puppet and acts in a manner known as ningyoburi… as if without legs. Beneath her we see Onoe Kikugoro IV as the servant and standing, Kawarazaki Gonjûrô I as Kichisa.

Colour and impression are fine, the robes of  Oshichi are an oxidised metallic, the condition overall is outstanding… the quality of the print is fresh and brilliant and unsoiled. These vertical diptychs are usually in poor condition because of being hinged into albums. Typically the lower sheet does not survive or is badly torn and marked from use. The sheets are unbacked (unusually) and the only flaw is the common enough trimming to the join to enable them to fit in bound volumes.

An outstanding design, in fine condition of a rare design that was to set the standard and feel of many ukiyo prints that followed.

Published by Samiya Tôkichi.

24 x 69 cm.