Kunisada, Mirror of Valour, Ancient and Modern - Nakamura Utaemon IV

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Mirror of Valour, Ancient and Modern: Nakamura Utaemon IV, 1847. Oban.

Click here for a full-size image.

This is an unusual and little seen print from a well known series of actors seen in role in Japanese mirrors. The pictures are hard to read at first until one realises that there were no glass and silver mirrors in Japan until later in the nineteenth century… these were innovations brought by westerners after the relaxation of Japanese borders. The traditional Japanese mirror, was made from highly polished bronze. The drawback of these mirrors was the tarnishing that would occur from finger marks when the things were handled. As a consequence, the mirrors were stored in lacquer boxes, kept on stands and wrapped in decorative cloths for protection.

The practice led to some ambiguity and a great range of decorative possibilities which Kunisada exploited to the full. Here we see a portrait from the series Mirror of Valour, Ancient and Modern, ("Konjaku chuko kagami") of  Nakamura Utaemon IV in the role of Kumasaka Chohan. The heroic title was used in order to imply that the series celebrated Japanese virtues rather than decadent actors and theatres following the swingeing reforms to public morals in the 1840’s.

It is a great, bold portrait. The subject, Kumasaka Chohan is hardly an edifying one for tales of courage and valour. Chohan was a bandit in the twelfth century, his story climaxes in his death at the hands of the Japanese hero and warlord, Yoshitsune no Minamoto.

Yoshitsune was brought up in a monastery. Legend has it that he was then taught the secrets of fighting by Tengu (mythical forest creatures) before taking up rebellion against his father’s old enemies. Yoshitsune is usually pictured fighting the warrior monk Benkei at Gojo Bridge. In the various plays about Chohan, the young Yoshitsune is travelling in a caravan with a gold dealer when it is attacked by bandits. Yoshitsune fights and kills Chohan who who then returns as a ghost and features  in various Noh and kabuki plays.

This is a very fine portrait, quite rare and decoratively complex.

Colour and impression are fine. Overall condition is very good, repaired binding holes to the top margin, minor scuffing to lower edge.

Publisher: Azumaya Daisuke.

37 x 25 cm.