Kunichika, A Scene from Kokusen'ya Gassen

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) A Scene from Kokusen'ya Gassen, 1893. Oban Diptych.

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This diptych - I think a true diptych rather than a triptych missing  a sheet - is a true wonder. It comes from somewhere in the 1890’s, and is a particularly good example of Japanese culture developing away from the heritage that had defined it for five hundred years and entirely embracing the new imported culture of America and Europe at the end of the nineteenth century.

The scene is from the play, Kokusen'ya Gassen. This print from a story often called The Battles of Coxinga, is as exotic as the strange story that it tells. The Chinese Ming Emperor is counselled by two rival advisors, Ritoten and Gosanki. The evil one of the two plucks out his own eye to deceive the Emperor of his loyalty only to mock him and stab him to death. Gosanki saves the Emperor’s sister, Sendan who later dies but not before giving birth. They travel to Japan and are washed up at the home of a family of exiles and their son Watonai. They all vow to restore the Royal Family and travel back to China, landing in the midst of a tiger hunt; fearless Watonai kills the tiger and the evil Ritoten’s retainers and they come to the home of Kinshojo, the half sister of Watonai and her husband General Kanki.

Kinshojo is overjoyed to be reunited with her family but General Kanki refuses to be united with Watonai. As a consequence, Kinshojo and her stepmother kill themselves, uniting the families through sacrifice and together they defeat Ritoten and restore the child Emperor. Kunichika made various prints on the same subject. In the 1880’s the convention was for Watonai to wear the unusual red costume with pom-poms but as we go into the ’90’s, self-consciousness about Japanese isolationism meant that everything was subject to modernisation. Hence here we have the seemingly anachronistic image of Watonai wearing a Chinese suit with a western trilby hat while the princess Sendan is still in Imperial Chinese regalia.

This is a rare and unusual print of a relatively common play. I have seen one other copy of the print at another dealer’s some time ago which was also in diptych form and I assume therefore that this is the complete design. Colour, impression and condition are all fine, two oban sheets unattached. Remnants of previous backing.

49 x 36 cm.