Kunisada, Actors at the 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road - Namamugi

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Actors at the Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido Road (Tokaido gojusan tsugi no uchi) #3a: Namamugi 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.

Kunisada didn’t bother to walk the route, sketchbook in hand. Instead he relied on Hiroshige’s prints of the various stations of the Kichizo edition of 1850. In this print Kunisada has rather brilliantly portrayed the complex character of  Yura Hyogo, played by the actor Ichikawa Ebizo V, from the play, Shinrei Yaguchi no Watashi.

Yura appears principally in Act III scene 2: "At Yura Hyogo’s Mansion". The backstory concerns complicated plots to overthrow the ruling family. The distressing Act III echoes other similar dilemmas of loyalty in the kabuki repertoire. Yura is obliged to substitute his own young son disguised as the son of the Emperor and when challenged by rebels beheads the child in order to allow the heir to the royal household to escape. The elaborate cartouche in the upper right contains the ominous round ‘head box’ that contains the decapitated head of Yura’s son. For the same story with altered characters and names, see the more famous scene in Keisei Kiyome no Funauta by Hirosada also in this show.

Oddly, the next scene is the ferry at Tombei’s house… the same Tombei of the print on this page. The scene is the same and Tombei has been rewarded for the cowardly assassination of the Commander of the Imperial troops . The entire play ends with the death of Tombei from magical white arrows sent by the spirit of Yoshioki, the victim of his assassination.

A complex drawing and characterisation, Yura is hardly a good man and yet sacrifices his son for the sake of the Emperor. Kunisada depicts the contortions in the actor’s interpretation of the role.

Very good colour, good impression, condition is good, slight trimming but overall an excellent print. Unbacked. A copy of the print is in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston 

Publisher: Tsujiokaya Bunsuke.

36.5 x 24 cm.