Kunisada, Nakamura Utaemon as Ume no Yoshibei

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Actor Nakamura Utaemon as Ume no Yoshibei  (L) from the play Suda no Haru Geisha Katagi, 1848. Oban Triptych.

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This is a lovely Japanese print of actors in the popular kabuki drama, Suda no Haru Geisha Katagi… a play in the genre of otokodate. The hero of this drama, the otokodate Ume no Yoshibei, was based on a real person, Umeshibu no Kichibei, who murdered a shop assistant named Chokichi in 1689 in Osaka  to steal his money. Otokodate were gangs of tough and fearless commoners originally formed to protect ordinary townspeople against the abuses of lawless low-ranking samurai - probably more in fiction than reality - and who came to have more in common with protection rackets than anything else. These Robin Hood figures, who made a living with gambling, were the ancestors of modern Japanese mafia. Otokodate roles appealed a lot to the Edo kabuki audience.

Against a dim panorama, suggestive of  the evening light, three figures tussle over a money bag. In the background is a deft silhouette of the Edo skyline and the outline possibly of the red light district. The scene is in fact the banks of the Sumida River. On the left is Ume no Yoshibei played by the actor Nakamura Utaemon; in the centre, Chokichi, his brother in law played by Iwai Kumesaburo; and on the right sheet Genbei, a thief played by Sanjuro Seki.

All of the characters are in desperate need of 100 ryo… a huge sum in those days, mainly to retrieve the heirloom of a valuable poetry card or else to ransom the wife of a friend who has been sold into prostitution. Chokichi has come across 100 ryo and is rushing to free the girl from the brothel when he is attacked by a burglar. Yoshibei rescues him, and appeals to him for the loan of the money for the same reason! Chokichi fails to recognise him. Not realising who he is, he refuses the request and insists that the money is for his brother-in-law and cannot be lent out. Yoshibei, who equally frustratingly does not realise that Chokichi is the younger brother of his wife Koume, murders him. In the fight Yoshibei's little finger is bitten off. The killer flees but he carelessly drops his wallet. When his wife Koume sees the missing finger in the corpse's mouth, she realises her husband is responsible for the death of her brother. In grief, she cuts off her own finger and kills herself.  Yoshibei's wallet is picked up by the villain Genbei. The drama resolves itself after a fashion but it is a good example of the common distress that Edo townspeople found themselves in time after time and the extreme measures that they resorted to in order to improve their lot.

This is a very good Kunisada triptych, the colour and impression are very good and the condition is also very good, with some thinning of the paper at the corners. Unbacked. There is some surface soiling and scuffing to the lower edges. The bokashi shading of the moonlit skyline is outstanding.

73 x 36 cm.