Kuniyoshi, Act V from the Kanadehon Chushingura

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) Act V from the Kanadehon Chushingura, 1835. Oban.

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This unusual Kuniyoshi print is from a sought after 1835 series that illustrates the principal acts in the great kabuki revenge drama, the Kanadehon Chushingura… 'The Treasury of the Loyal Retainers'.  The wildly popular drama is probably one of the commonest illustrated by ukiyo-e artists and was based upon real events from the recent past.

Kuniyoshi based the series on two rival performances of the play that were running at the same time in two different theatres. The actor Matsumoto Taisuke is in the role of Yochibei, and the actor Ichikawa Sumizo III (1793-1837) is in the role of Sadakuro. Hence recognisable actors from both performances might appear on the same sheet! This is perhaps the most famous drama of kabuki theatre and the real historical characters are still revered today at their shrine and in films, books, plays and cartoons. The true story tells the suicide of Enya Hangan, who in 1701 was goaded into drawing his sword in the Shogun’s palace by the courtier Moronao. Hangan is obliged to commit suicide for the offence and his retainers become Ronin, leaderless samurai. They vow revenge and the play revolves around their plotting and preparation, culminating in the storming of Moronao’s house and his eventual assassination.

It is unusual in Kuniyoshi’s oeuvre since it is set in unusually realistic landscapes that owe a great deal to  Toyohiro and Hiroshige. Kuniyoshi was less at home in the theatre than his great friend and rival Kunisada, hence these forays into theatricality often have an awkwardness to them. The landscape here is drawn from an interpretation of Hiroshige… that conical hill and the shorthand that describes the pine trees for example… and ironically, Hiroshige’s heir Hiroshige II (Shigenobu) in turn used Kuniyoshi’s designs as a basis of his own series twenty years later. All these artists though owe the greatest debt to the print pioneer Hokusai who created the definitive version in 1806.

The prints in this series occupy the intangible space between the reality of the imagined picture - a Western ideal - and the Japanese reality (often starkly drawn) of the the theatre stage. We are clearly being led to see this as a theatre stage… the title of the series and the individual prints correspond to the acts in the play as published and not the historical account. But then again here and in other prints, the landscape is not that of the stage!

The various lengthy and digressive dramas about the Chushingura contain endless sub-plots, all of them fictitious. Act V as Kuniyoshi draws it here shows the thief Sadakuro in the rain standing over the hapless Yoichibei. Yoichibei's daughter Okaru, has fallen in love with the ruffian Kanpei. When his master Hangan is obliged to take his life, Kanpei attempts to join a group of ronin who intend to avenge Hangan's death. However, he is penniless, and must somehow raise money. Okaru decides that she will sell herself to a Kyoto brothel. In this scene, her father is coming back from Kyoto with a bag of gold from the transaction when he is accosted by Sadakuro, who kills him and takes the money.

While out hunting wild boar, Kanpei shoots Sadakuro by accident. Coming across the body, he impulsively takes the bloodied money bag in haste and returns to Yoichibei's house to share his good fortune. He arrives moments before a group of hunters bearing the murdered body of his father-in-law. With the dirty bag in hand, Kanpei is accused of the murder, which even he believes he may have committed, as he had neglected to check the identity of his victim before stealing away with the money bag. Once the other ronin refuse to bring him into their company, an entirely distraught Kanpei commits suicide himself in the hopes of restoring his honour and freeing Okaru from her obligation to the brothel.

It is a really fine print. Rare and collectible, full of myth and complex meaning. The colour and impression are fine. Full size with margins, a visible centre fold, excellent condition overall. The print has the rare and comical artist's seal of a frog. A copy of this print is in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Publisher: Edoya Matsugoro.

38 x 25 cm.