Kokunimasa, The Escape of Soma Tomotane

Utagawa Kokunimasa (1874–1944) The Escape of Soma Tomotane, 1893. Oban triptych.

Click here for a full-size image.

This is a superb piece of work. Tremendously important as a document of the history of mental health in Japan and a record of a tragic incident that became famous throughout the world. The print is a scene from the story Ainishiki Gofuchi no Hanashi, the account of an actual event that changed Japanese attitudes towards mental health.

The stunning triptych is marvellously realised… a marching line of vertical fence posts marks out the diagonal space before and behind the scene of figures struggling in the rain to break through the undergrowth.  The boldness, richness and, oddly, sparseness of  the design is hugely impressive. The picture draws on Meiji scenes of daring samurai escapes especially for the drawing of the figures but this is a very different story.

I am indebted to the website Nippaku for a very thorough history of the facts about the case. In brief, the provision for the care of the mentally ill was historically as poor in Japan as it was in other countries at the time, like the asylums such as Bedlam found in the United Kingdom. Families were responsible for care and those that could not were obliged to commit relatives to prison. Wealthy families could use the asylums. There was, however, the serious problem of wrongful or illegal confinement plotted by family members. An infamous example of wrongful confinement is the Sōma case (1883-1895). Sōma Tomotane, daimyo of the domain of Nakamura, was diagnosed as mentally ill, and confined first at home and then at a hospital without legal procedure. One of his retainers sued the family members, accusing them of unlawful confinement. The retainers helped Sōma escape from the hospital, and made the glaring conditions in the mental hospitals public via the press. The incident was covered nationwide, and international newspapers as well covered the “barbarian” situation in Japan. The Japanese government feared that this incident would undermine their efforts in showing legal maturity to revise the unequal treaties, and hastily decided to introduce a formal mental health law justifying the treatment of mentally disordered citizens.

The print by Kokunimasa shows the moment of escape. The figure of Tomotane is like an heroic or broken Christ; his retainers evoke the manner and poses of other chivalrous servants such as the leaderless 47 Ronin.

This is a great and important print. The sky is dusted with black mica, colour impression and condition are all fine, unbacked with margins.

Publisher: Fukuda Kumajiro.

Signed: Baido Ko-kunimasa.  Kokunimasa was the son of the artist Baido Hosai.

71 x 36 cm.