Kunisada, Onna Seigen

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Onna Seigen, 1847. Oban triptych.

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The drama here is driven by a hero (not always good) named Matsuwakamaru. Princess Hanako falls in love with him but - as so often happens - the business of sucession and a valuable scroll gets in the way. A villain (Sarushima Sota, centre in our triptych), tells her that Matsuwakamaru is dead. He reappears with the scroll and gives it to Hanako but she is bewitched by Sota from his gift of aphrodisiac sandals.

By scene four Hanako has become a nun and taken the name Seigen, but is troubled by her desire for Matsuwakamaru and the image of him that she sees everywhere. In act II, Matsuwakamaru’s brother, Umewakamaru is killed whilst searching for him. Now we come to the real subject of the print, Act III scene 1: At  the Ferry of the Sumida River. The nun Seigen, who has become a beggar, takes a ferryboat, manned by Sota, to get back across the river to her hermitage. By the light of fires aboard whitebait fishing boats, she sees Matsuwakamaru in one of the passing crafts. But the current of the river unmercifully takes her away from him.

By the final act, the tragic Seigen is dead, and her ghost appears to Matsuwakamaru and in a rage attempts to drown him... she is quelled in the end by the famous scroll from the first act. Kunisada shows the river scene, from left; Iwai Kumesaburo as Seigen, Arashi Saburo as the villain Sarushima Sota and Suketaya Takasuke IV as Matsuwakamaru.

This is a very desirable triptych because above all it is such a good design. Kunisada plays delightfully with the forms of the boats and there is thrilling fishing fire - clearly an indicator of ghostly activity to come - in the centre sheet. Colour, impression and condition are all fine. Slight trimming, a little surface wear and there has been a slight loss (now restored) to the upper right edge. A copy of the print is in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and in the British Museum.

Published by Joshuya Kinzo.

72 x 35.5 cm.