Kunisada, 69 Stations of the Kisokaido Road 66 - Echi-kawa

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865), The Sixty-nine Stations of the Kisokaido Road #66: Echi-kawa - Nakamura Fukusuke as Kashinosuke from the series Kisokaido Road, 1852. Oban.

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In the Sengoku period (15th - 17th century) the shogunate developed five routes crossing the principal districts of Japan. The two most famous routes connected the government capital in Edo (Tokyo) with the Imperial capital in Kyoto. The inland, mountainous route was called the Nakasendo (the Kisokaido) and the coastal route was called the Tokaido. Each of these roads had post stations along the entire length - 53 on the Tokaido and 69 on the Kisokaido. Several artists developed a landscape genre illustrating the post stations of each route. Hokusai is perhaps the earliest in 1804, and Hiroshige the most famous. Hiroshige produced several series from the 1830’s onwards.

In 1852, Kunisada was commissioned to produce a series on the Tokaido Road using modified versions of the earlier Hiroshige series with actor portraits in the foreground. The prohibition on naming actors in woodblock prints meant that only the roles were identified. The series proved to be so popular that Kunisada quickly conceived of a second series based on the Kisokaido. This very fine series is less well known and scarcer in number than the original Tokaido series.

This print is quite rare, Kunisada’s Tokaido prints are easy to find but I can find only one other copy of this print and that is on Horst Graebner’s invaluable reference site, kunisada.de. There are seemingly no copies of this print in any available public collections. Of course it is all somewhat fraudulent in that Kunisada never travelled the Kisokaido himself. Referring to Hiroshige’s series from the 1830’s, it is easy to see how Kunisada simply used his friend’s views as an approximate backdrop to his actor portraits, separating the two images with a cloud motif… nevertheless, he gets away with it and the series is really one of the very finest of his career. This print is a very fine design. Plenty of energy is conveyed in that outthrust arm and grim mie. Graebner identifies the character as Tomi Kashinosuke, and the station illustrated is #66 - Echi-kawa. References to that character are scant. Another Kunisada of that name is illustrated by the MFA Boston in a print from the same year of the Tokaido highway. The characters are very profoundly different… remember, consistency in representation is one of the key elements of ukiyo-e art, I am unconvinced that Kunisada would choose to invent two such different models of the same subject.

My preference is that this character is in fact the warrior Kobayashi no Asahina, played by the kabuki actor Nakamura Shikan IV in his characteristic red make up. He is generally seen in a dance drama, Shofudatsuki Kongen Kusazuri. The armour-pulling scene is a famous sogamono, a dance related to the tales of the Soga brothers. The hot-blooded Goro, believing his brother to be in mortal danger, rushes out from hiding to his defence, only to be held back by the legendary warrior Kobayashi no Asahina, who pulls the lappets of Goro's armor to stop the impetuous young man. Asahina's costume usually bears the crest of a crane in a circle while Goro's costume bears the Soga butterfly crest. A contest of strength ensues and the armour is torn in two pieces. Comparison with Kunisada’s portrait of the same actor (albeit going by his later name Nakamura Shikan IV) makes for a more convincing identification.

Kunisada has adorned the cartouche with clues… two spears and a banner… I cannot say the significance of the lantern or the andon. Hiroshige’s landscape dominates the background.

A fine print, rare. Full-size with top margin. Colour, impression and condition are all fine.

37 x 25 cm.