Kunisada, A Calendar of Hit Plays Compared with Picture Plays - Snake

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) A Calendar of Hit Plays Compared with Picture Plays - Zodiac Sign: Snake, 1852. Oban.

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This and its companion print on this page are from a rare and unusual series of very well produced prints by Kunisada from 1852. There are two parts to the series; the first (as here) produced in 1852 shows actors compared to the twelve signs of the zodiac and the signs for the elements. In the same series but not produced until a decade later in 1861 were the remaining prints not completed in the first set. There is no explanation for the break in the series.

In this magnificent print, Kunisada shows the actor Iwai Hanshiro V in the main picture as the snake charmer, Dote no Oroku - literally "Oroku of the Embankment" - who works in the entertainment quarter. The figure in the inset cartouche is Matsumoto Kinsho as Gantetsu, an Edo crook who is posing as a Buddhist ascetic. The plot of the play, Even the Irises Are Dyed with Edo Purple ("Dote No Oroku") is immensely long and complicated but is essentially the usual rote of desperate men and women eking an existence in the social hinterland of Edo. In this case, Oroku and Gantetsu have been hired by the villain Yazaemon to split up the relationship between a ronin (Jirozaemon) and his girlfriend and to put him off the scent in his pursuit of a stolen sword, the loss of which he has been wrongly accused of.

The final scene, pictured here perhaps, sees Oroku on the banks of the Sumida river near the red light zone, challenging Gantetsu who has the precious sword. Oroku uses her snakes to scare him away and finally she cuts him down. She returns the sword to Jirozaemon just in time for him to escape the clutches of the police. She sacrifices herself by turning herself in and her honour is restored… a truly brave and chivalrous example of the Edo woman!

The print is one of those small Edo masterpieces of colour, design and concision. We see Hanshiro, the onnagata (female impersonator) actor as Oroku with her snake around her neck. In the background is visible the river and the buildings of the Yoshiwara. Her ex partner and rival is seen in the fan shaped cartouche in the upper right, scowling down. The title cartouche on the left reveals clues about the play such as the irises of the title. After the moralising reforms of the 1840’s, it was common to use mitate - puns and allusion - as the basis for prints on wholly other subjects; hence this print commemorates the year of the snake… but to all intent and purpose, the print is celebrating a famous play and two popular actors. The audience pleasure would have been found in the clever way that the artist has chosen to marry the two.

The print is in very good condition, the colour and impression are fine. A repaired wormhole to the left-hand margin, light soiling. Unbacked and trimmed to the image, an excellent print from a desirable series.

Censor seal: Fuku, Muramatsu.

Publisher: Ebisuya Shoshichi.

24.5 x 36 cm.