Yoshitaki, Nakamura Sennosuke and Arashi Rikaku II in Katakiuchi Ganryujima

Utagawa Yoshitaki (1841 - 1899) Nakamura Sennosuke and Arashi Rikaku II in Katakiuchi Ganryûjima, 1862. Deluxe Chuban diptych.

Click here for a full-size image.

A sensational deluxe print that must be held to the light to really appreciate the beauty and the technical skill in the finish, the surface and the depth of colour achieved from static printing blocks. I was showing the print to artist Christopher Bucklow who, commenting on the figure of Itohagi on the right, said that “there were whole universes in there’… Indeed there are. The complexity and adroitness of the design is very hard to disentangle, even first hand. Yoshitaki and the printer have designed a series of blended (bokashi) overlays that open the space of the kimono design, wrapping it in intricate blocks and glowing metallics. Really a masterpiece.

What else I wonder is going on? These elaborate gilded, embossed colourful figures stand against the grey gridded background… a background that looks machine made but is in fact quite random, difficult even to trace any order in what appears at first sight to be a highly ordered ground. Photographs from quite close to this time and even contemporary lavish kabuki productions do not look like these prints. These woodblock prints occupy a different kind of space, one derived from the stage but a terra incognito born from a shared fantasy of what potential these characters might exercise… life and not life in a way.

The diptych shows two characters from the play Katakiuchi Ganryujima: actors Nakamura Sennosuke as the Daughter  Itohagi (Right) and Arashi Rikaku II as Miyamoto Musashi (Left). Murashi (1584 - 1645), whose name meant "Storehouse of Military Knowledge" became a legendary swordsman and was a bold and reputedly reckless adventurer who nevertheless survived armed combat more than 60 times and died a natural death in 1645 . Musashi is widely known in the West as the author of The Book of Five Rings, a treatise on military tactics, strategy, and philosophy. After its first English translation in 1974, the book captured the popular imagination and was studied earnestly by business executives in the West to understand Japanese management techniques and strategies used during Japan's rise to post-war economic power. (With thanks to John Fiorillo).

The plot of  Katakiuchi Ganryujima is lost but a genre, Katakiuchi mono, exists of revenge and heroism involving the legendary Miyamoto Musashi.

A jewel box of a print with as-new colour, impression and condition. Japanese album backed. Beautiful bronze metallics, outstanding subtle bokashi shading. A print of the very highest quality.

A copy of the print is in the Museum of Fine Arts collection Boston

36 x 25 cm.