Kunisada, Act V from the Kanadehon Chushingura

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Act V from the Kanadehon Chushingura, 1854. Oban triptych.

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This vigorous triptych by Kunisada illustrates Act V from the great kabuki revenge drama, the Kanadehon Chushingura… "The Treasury of the Loyal Retainers".  The wildly popular drama is probably one of the commonest illustrated by ukiyo-e artists and was based upon real events from the recent past. This is perhaps the most famous drama of kabuki theatre and the real historical characters are still revered today at their shrine and in films, books, plays and cartoons. The true story tells the suicide of Enya Hangan who in 1701 was forced to draw his sword in the Shogun’s palace by the goading  of the courtier Moronao. Hangan is obliged to commit suicide for the offence and his retainers become Ronin, leaderless samurai. They vow revenge and the play revolves around their plotting and preparation, culminating in the storming of Moronao’s house and his eventual assassination.

The print occupies the intangible space between the reality of the imagined picture - a western ideal - and the Japanese reality (often starkly drawn) of the the theatre stage. We are clearly being led to see this as a theatre stage… the title corresponds to the acts in the play and not the historical account. But then again, the landscape is not that of the stage! We see the whole act laid out, right to left across the three sheets in time and space. So we have to bear in mind that this is not a snapshot… a frozen moment in the western tradition, but a view through time to different events in the play…. confusing!

The various lengthy and digressive dramas about the Chushingura contain endless sub-plots, all of them fictitious. Act V tells of the thief Sadakuro killing the hapless Yoichibei.

Yoichibei's daughter Okaru, has fallen in love with the ruffian Kanpei. When his master Hangan is obliged to take his life, Kanpei attempts to join a group of ronin who intend to avenge Hangan's death. However, he is penniless, and must somehow raise money. Okaru decides that she will sell herself to a Kyoto brothel. In this scene, her father Yoichibei is coming back from Kyoto with a bag of gold from the transaction when he is accosted by Sadakuro, who kills him and takes the money.

When out hunting wild boar, Kanpei shoots Sadakuro by accident. Coming across the body, he impulsively takes the bloodied money bag in haste and returns to his house to share his good fortune. He arrives moments before a group of hunters bearing the murdered body of his father-in-law. With the dirty bag in hand, Kanpei is accused of the murder, which even he believes he may have committed, as he had neglected to check the identity of his victim before stealing away with the money bag. He is turned down by the other Ronin and commits suicide himself in the hopes of restoring his honour and freeing Okaru from her obligation to the brothel.

In the print, we see Yoichibei being attacked by Sadakuro in the left-hand sheet, returning home with the gold from the sale of his daughter. In the centre sheet, we see Okaru off to the brothel in a palanquin, carried by the comic turn of the play - the two porters. In the right sheet, we see Kanpei setting off to shoot wild boar, his gun slung over his shoulder.

A tremendous theatre triptych by Kunisada; colour, impression and condition are all fine.

77 x 37 cm.