Kunisada, Portraits from Hit Plays of Both Historical Stories and Modern Life - Kosho Sutewakamaru

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Portraits from Hit Plays of Both Historical Stories and Modern Life (Jidai sewa atari sugatami): Nakamura Fukusuke I as Kosho Sutewakamaru, 1859. Oban.

Click here for a full-size image.

Kunisada made some of his finest work in the last few years of his life. These late, great series, show supreme confidence in the medium which had become in his lifetime the most popular art form in the then largest city in the world. They bristle with technical achievement and brilliant displays of daring composition and drawing. The publishers, liberated from many of the censorship restrictions of the 1840’s and sensing a new spirit of economic optimism and change, spared nothing in the value and costs of some of these, still exotic, print series.

This series and similar series such as Toyokuni Manga zu from the same year, use the same device of having popular actors performing roles in elaborate costumes, many of which were imagined performances that had never taken place. In this case, the actor Nakamura Fukusuke I plays Kosho Sutewakamaru from the play The Chigo Deep Water ("Keisei Chikugo-ga-Fuchi").

The theatrical Sutewakamaru was the illegitimate son of Akechi Mitsuhide. He spent his childhood at a temple near the roiling waters of Chigo Ga Fuchi. Pursued by two older monks he decided to commit suicide by drowning, but was rescued by Mashiba Hisayorshi, the historical Toyotomi Hideyoshi, his sworn enemy and the killer of his father.

In the theatre, Sutewakamaru grows up to be Ishikawa Goemon the bandit chief, anti-hero and kabuki villain who is the central figure of many traditional plays. The play combined the legends of the outlaw Goemon with a revenge tale involving Shiragikumaru (renamed Sutewakamaru in the kabuki dramas). The confusing saga includes Sutewakamaru vowing to avenge the death of Takechi Mitsuhide who had been slain by Mashiba Hisayoshi (the theatrical namesake for the historical shôgun Toyotomi Hideyoshi). This links the Sutewakamaru plot with various Ishikawa Goemon plays set during the reign of Hideyoshi.

The print is richly cut and decorated, beautifully produced, with mica sprinkled in the upper portion of night sky. Embossing to the sleeve and shomenzuri to the red robe. Colour, impression and condition are all fine.

There is a copy of the print in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston

24 x 35.5 cm.