Hirosada, Nakamura Utaemon IV as Kato Masakiyo

Konishi Hirosada (ca 1810 - 1864) Nakamura Utaemon IV as Kato Masakiyo in Keisei kiyome no funauta, 1851. Chuban Triptych.

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The Hirosada triptych above is unusual in the greater movement and bravura in the drawing. The work is quite dynamic, compared to his normal triptychs. Hirosada’s career came to an abrupt end in 1852… one year after this print was made. He had almost abandoned the close up head and shoulders chuban print in favour of chuban polyptychs done a more expressive style, although not necessarily as freely drawn as this.

The print celebrates a Japanese folk hero and actual person from history. Kato Masakiyo was the theatrical stand-in for the historical Kato Kiyomasa (1562-1611), a relative of Hideyoshi, whose service Kato Kiyomasa entered upon reaching manhood, soon distinguishing himself in battle. Upon Hideyoshi’s death in 1598, Kiyomasa returned to Japan and aided Tokugawa Ieyasu and for his services, he received Kumamoto Castle as his provincial residence. He also brutally suppressed Christianity in Kyushu. In his later years, he tried to work as a mediator for the increasingly complicated relationship between Tokugawa Ieyasu and Toyotomi Hideyori. In 1611, en route by sea to Kumamoto, he fell ill, and died shortly after his arrival, the rumour being that he was poisoned by Tokugawa Ieyasu. He became, under the thinly disguised name of Sato Masakiyo, the hero of many kabuki dramas.

In kabuki, Masakiyo's tale takes an ominous turn when circumstances force him to meet with Kitabatake (a theatrical stand-in for Tokugawa Ieyasu). Kitabatake gives Masakiyo a poisoned cup of saké, which he drinks, knowing it will be fatal. Masakiyo nevertheless manages to stay alive for months to protect his lord until finally succumbing to the deadly brew.

The print illustrates the play Keisei kiyome no funauta ("An innocent courtesan and a sailor’s song") but sadly the plot is now lost. One story has the Shogun turning against Masakiyo for interfering in a plot to murder his rival’s son and this scene may reflect that. In the right sheet we see Nakamura Utaemon IV as Kato Masakiyo in full armour; Jitsukawa Enzaburo I as Kimura Matazo in the centre; and Jitsukawa Ensaku as Kato Toranosuke, and Nakayama Nanshi II as Yatsushiro in the left-hand sheet. Of course both the boy in the left sheet and the man at the right share the same name… Toranosuke was Masakiyo’s child name so either we are looking at his son here or at an image of his past… a confusing and enigmatic print.

A rare late Hirosada triptych, dynamically drawn. Colour is fine, impression very good and condition excellent, unbacked and unattached. A copy of this print is in the Museum of Modern Art in Boston.

54 x 25 cm.