Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Actors at the Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido Road (Tokaido gojusan tsugi no uchi) #4: Kanagawa Station, 1852. Oban.
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Probably one of the most successful editions of woodblock prints of all time, Kunisada’s inspired and justly famous series of actors and the stations of the Tokaido Road marries two of the most popular genres of ukiyo-e into one theme. Each print, some issued as pairs, depicts a half-length actor portrait set against a background of a Tokaido Station scene. The choice of actor, role and landscape are full of obvious puns and allusions. In this case, the boatman Tombei (sometimes rendered "Tonbei") is an obvious choice for a waterside scene.
Kunisada didn’t bother to walk the route, sketchbook in hand. Instead he relied on Hiroshige’s prints of the various stations, in this case the Kichizo edition of 1850. Kunisada has taken some of the features from Hiroshige’s picture; the sea view and waterside village for example.
The portrait is of the actor Ichikawa Ebizo V as Watashimori Tombei. Tombei is the ferryman Sendo Tombei, from the kabuki play Shinrei Yaguchi no Watashi. As usual with kabuki, the plot is very complicated but the part that we are concerned with here is the refuge sought by Nitta Yoshimine and his lover at the ferryman’s house. Tombei’s daughter Ofuna falls instantly in love with Nitta. Nitta is wanted by the authorities and Tombei returns home to arrest him, thrusting his sword through the ceiling to the room upstairs, wounding Ofuna by mistake. Tombei rushes to light a fire to warn the village while Ofuna runs to the drum tower to signal that Nitta has already been arrested. With the last of her strength, Ofuna beats the drum allowing Nitta Yoshimine to escape. Tombei is meanwhile struck dead in his boat by a stray arrow. Kunisada shows Tombei in his characteristic patterned top, scowling… but what a fine portrait this is. The drawing, the printing, the colouration on the face and that great white beard with its embossed curlicues are really outstanding.
This is such a great series and should be celebrated as one of the great achievements of woodblock culture. It tends to be the victim of snobbishness on account of its popularity but in fact more and more, researchers are starting to take an interest. For example, even now there is no definitive list of all of the prints, or of the prints which form a pair of connecting images.
Colour and condition are fine, impression very good. Tight curled embossing to beard. One repaired wormhole. Unbacked.
Publisher: Izutsuya Shokichi.
36 x 24.5 cm.