Yoshitaki, Danshichi

Utagawa Yoshitaki (1841 - 1899) Danshichi, Early 1860’s. Chuban.

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This is a lovely print by the Osaka artist, Ichiyosai Yoshitaki. Yoshitaki was a prolific and highly successful artist in the second half of the nineteenth century. His father was a merchant, and Yoshitaki became a student of the less well known, Utagawa Yoshiume (1819 - 1879). His work was almost entirely devoted to the portrayal of kabuki actors.

Because of the very strict laws prohibiting the illustration of kabuki actors, many of the prints produced in Osaka especially, were what are known as mitate… pictures ostensibly about one - usually harmless or uncontroversial - subject, but actually about something quite different. Artists would habitually take a morally sound subject such as chivalrous behaviour or the elements or signs of the zodiac and use these themes to make series of prints showcasing kabuki actors or famous plays.

The symbol top right in this print, may be a stylised symbol for water. The commonplace was to use actors associated with a particular element, say, and draw the scene without necessarily writing the name of actor or character. Even at this distance in time, the figure of Danshichi and a pail of water is instantly recognisable.

Danshichi is a real Edo everyman… Danshichi is the archetype of the Osaka otokodate… the townsman who lives outside the law but means to act justly.  The role was based on a real man, a fishmonger in the city of Sakai, who killed somebody in the middle of winter in 1697. The dead body was hidden in the snow and discovered in spring, after the melting of the snow. This event was dramatised for the first time in 1698 by the Kamigata star Kataoka Nizaemon I, who played the leading role of Danshichi. Then, half a century later, Danshichi became the hero of Natsu Matsuri Naniwa Kagami in 1745. It contains the most famous  and spectacular murder scene in kabuki - that is, the murder by Danshichi of his father-in-law, Mikawaya Giheiji by the banks of the river.

In the numerous plays and dances, Danshichi remains the desperate man: here is a character who haplessly tries to do the right thing but for whom the fates, the authorities, other people, his rivals, his employers and his family are continually frustrating him. He is an emblem of frustration and of plans gone wrong. This is why he is such an Edo everyman. His travails are those of the desperate urban dweller, scrabbling for money to pay the rent, desperate to find love, family and stability in a rat-race city where there is not enough of anything to go round. Danshichi is often pictured washing the blood and mud from his body following the gruesome murder… a Macbeth like gesture, which he justifies as ridding the world of an evil man.

This dramatic print by Yoshitaki, is certainly from a series. Colour and condition are fine, impression fine and the print is unbacked. A fine print with oxidised metallics.

24 x 17.5 cm.