Kunisada, Ichikawa Ichizo III as Tenjiku Tokubei with Toad

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Actor Ichikawa Ichizô III as Tenjiku Tokubei from the play Tenjiku Tokubê Ikoku Banashi, 1857. Vertical Oban Diptych.

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Made less than a year after the preceding print, this spectacular show of toad magic is every bit as engrossing and impressive. Yakusha-e in this unusual and well preserved vertical diptych format is hard to come by since they were kept in albums and the large sheet size damaged easily when unfolded. There is much to see in this bravura piece… Kunisada depicts the end of Act II, Scene 1: at the Mansion of Yoshioka Sôkan in Kyôto, where the newly magical Tokubei announces his powers by demolishing the mansion and appearing spectacularly on the back of a gigantic toad. The play was first performed in the unpopular summer season in 1804 but soon became a huge hit.

The story revolves around the theft of a ritual, magical sword and the substitution and theft of fake copies. The scene we are witnessing follows the fortunes of Tokubei, a sailor who arrives at court full of exotic tales of foreign lands. The thief of the sword, Sokan turns out to be his dying father who is in fact a Chinese envoy sent to bring down the shogunate. As he dies he entrusts Tokubei with his magical powers and the dread mission of regicide. Tokubei tries out his newly gained skill, and changes a stone into a huge toad. He is all set to take over his father's ambition of overthrowing Japan. As Tokubei is getting ready to leave the mansion, he is surrounded by guards, and accosted by two of the shogun’s envoys. Tokubei, however, uses his newly gained magic, so that the strings of his assailants' bows are snapped. He then makes a magic sign, so often seen in kabuki prints, and the mansion collapses around his ears. Presently a huge toad appears on the roof with Tokubei astride it, blowing flames from its mouth… the guards and officials stagger back in amazement. I recommend a contemporary visualisation of this great scene currently available on Youtube as a help to imagine the effect this must have had in 1804!

Kunisada pictures the triumphant Tokubei, played by Ichikawa Ichizô III and his father Sokan (also called Yoshinaka) in the sake cup in the upper right. The two enforcers  (torite) thrown back by the blast are played by Arashi Kangorô I and Nakamura Kantarô.
This is obviously a very striking print, the tremendous depiction of the great toad for one thing seems to presage so many modern manga and other fantasy renderings of fantastical beasts. Prints of Tokubei are often confused with that other great magician of the kabuki stage, Jiraiya, with his toad magic.

There is a copy of this print on the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston although the link is currently unavailable; otherwise it is seemingly unknown in the public domain, a rare and highly collectible print. Colour and impression are very fine. Some trimming where the two sheets join. Both sheets unbacked, some light wrinkles otherwise fine condition. Unusually the two related prints were published by different publishers, the upper sheet clearly able to stand alone as a conventional portrait sheet.

Publisher: Ebisuya Sahôshichi Kinshôdô (above); Ebisuya Shôshichi (below).

24 x 69 cm.