Kunichika, The Helmet Selection at Hachiman Shrine

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) The Helmet Selection at Hachiman Shrine from Chushingura,  c. 1890. Oban Triptych.

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A fine, brilliant highly coloured design by Kunichika of the opening act of the great revenge tragedy of kabuki theatre - the Chushingura. Endlessly performed and revived, this scene is less commonly drawn.

The central story concerns the daimyo En'ya Hangan, who is goaded into drawing his sword and striking a senior lord, Kō no Moronō (Note: although the furigana for Moronō's name is Moronao, the pronunciation is Moronō). Drawing one's sword in the shōgun's palace was a capital offence and so Hangan is ordered to commit seppuku, or ritual suicide by disembowelment. The ceremony is carried out with great formality and, with his dying breath, he makes clear to his chief retainer, Ōboshi Yuranosuke, that he wishes to be avenged upon Moronō.

Forty-seven of Hangan's now masterless samurai or rōnin bide their time. Yuranosuke in particular, appears to give himself over to a life of debauchery in Kyoto's Gion pleasure quarters in order to put the enemy off their guard. In fact, they make stealthy but meticulous preparations and, in the depths of winter, storm Moronō's Edo mansion and kill him. Aware, however, that this deed is itself an offence, the retainers then carry Moronō's head to the grave of their lord at Sengaku-ji temple in Edo, where they all commit seppuku.

Kunichika shows the first act:  The Helmet Selection at Hachiman Shrine. This play has a unique opening, in which the curtain is pulled open slowly over several minutes, accompanied by forty-seven individual beats of the ki, one for each of the heroic rōnin. Gradually, the actors are revealed in front of the Hachiman Shrine in Kamakura slumped over like lifeless puppets. As the gidayū narrator speaks the name of each character he comes to life. Lord Moronō's evil nature is immediately demonstrated by his black robes and the furious mie pose which he strikes when his name is announced. He is hostile to the younger, inexperienced lords. They have all gathered to find and present a special helmet at the shrine and it is Hangan's wife, Kaoyo, who is the one to identify it. When the ceremony is over and he is eventually left alone with Kaoyo, Moronō propositions her but she rejects his amorous advances.

Moronao is clearly visible in the black robes on the right hand sheet, Kaoyo seen on the left. The print is in really excellent condition, backed on Japanese album backing paper. Colour and impression are fine, the condition is excellent… some minor surface marks. Polished shomen-zuri patterns on the black hats. Two sheets attached, one loose.

72 x 36 cm.