Kuniyasu, Bijin holding Bunraku Puppets of Actors as Otokodate

Utagawa Kuniyasu (1794 - 1832) Onoe Kikugoro III as Gokuin Sen’emon, Bando Mitsugoro III as An no Heibei and Ichikawa Danjūro VII as Karigane Bunshichi,  early 1820’s. Oban Triptych.

Click here for a full-size image.

Click here for a detailed enlargement.

This is a remarkable, very rare and very highly desirable set of prints by the astoundingly good artist, Kuniyasu. Kuniyasu (1794 - 1832) was a pupil of Toyokuni and worked his apprenticeship at the Utagawa School; tragically, he died young at the age of 38. This mature print is from a set that commemorates a real set of street gang members who terrorised Osaka in the eighteenth century. These otokodate presented themselves as chivalrous righters of wrongs; their exploits were enthusiastically taken up by playwrights and theatres and a romantic myth was woven around what were in reality just thugs. Around 1700, An no Heibei (centre) was a member of a group called ‘The Five Men of Naniwa’…  a gang, (no different from London or New York street gangs of today) led by a fearsome hooligan called Karigane Bunhichi (right). They all of them came to a sticky end though. Their lives are recorded in police records of the time and these in return are written up in a splendid book: Osaka, the Merchant's Capital of Early Modern Japan by Osamu A. Wakita. 

At the end of the seventeenth century and beginning of the eighteenth, Karigane Bunshichi, Gokuin no Sen'emon, An no Heibei, Hote no Ichiemon, and Kaminari Shokuro haunted the streets of Osaka, robbing, beating, and even killing fellow residents. In the summer of 1701 the police caught up with the violent young men, and, after an investigation, authorities publicly executed them in the Eighth Month of the following year. The brazen personality of the ruffians and their contemptuous disregard for the law riveted the attention of Osakans, who began to create an intriguing set of myths about the motives and deeds of those ne'er-do-wells of Naniwa, a traditional name for Osaka. In time the condemned men were elevated to legendary status. Celebrated in ballads, plays, stories, and wood-block prints, the Five Men of Naniwa, thugs and murderers in real life, became transformed into protectors of ordinary people and the embodiment of the best and most noble aspirations and values espoused by the commoners of Osaka.

The stories were translated into popular puppet plays and these plays then migrated to the kabuki stage. This astonishing set plays with the two concepts… the classic beauties of Edo are seen here holding bunraku puppets of three of the gang, and in a superb twist, the puppets are lifelike depictions of three of the great kabuki actors of the day. This is a masterpiece of wit and manipulation, not to say an exquisite piece of design and print making from a rare and collectible artist.

The portrayal of the women is in classic, Edo printmaking style and highly desirable. They lean on the broken blue ledge of the puppeteer’s stage at the front, breaking our spatial connection to the scene and opening the view to the dangling blossoms behind them. Meanwhile the puppets themselves hover between the hapless immobility of marionettes and the alarming lifelike quality of real actors on stage. A masterpiece of Edo printmaking.  Kunisada made a print of a beauty holding a puppet of a sumo wrestler that has clear links to this earlier Kuniyasu.

Colour and impression are very good, there is embossing to the peony flowers. Condition is very good overall, but on certain sheets there is discolouration and scuffing to the lower margins, and black printer's ink migration to the puppet on the left-hand sheet. The condition of the prints is commensurate with age and the archaic nature of the paper and production. These prints look back to the early years of ukiyo-e and do not have the benefit of Western imported dyes and the robust paper used for the long print runs of artists such as Kuniyoshi or Kunisada. This is a very rare set of prints indeed. The prints are of sufficient rarity as a set to be in a museum collection.

Signed: Kuniyasu ga.

Publisher: Uemura Yohei.

75 x 37 cm.