Taiso Yoshitoshi (1839 - 1892) Actor Bando Hikosaburo V as Nikki Danjo, 1862/3. Oban.
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This is one of a very few actor portraits made by Yoshitoshi early on in his career. His teacher Kuniyoshi had died in 1861, throwing Yoshitoshi into financial and professional precariousness. He managed, through personal friendships with the actors Ichikawa Danjuro IX and Onoe Kikugoro V to make a small living making kabuki prints such as this one. Forty-four known designs exist from 1862; fewer - nineteen - from the following year.
These prints are very rare indeed and not many survive in good condition; there are no other known copies of this design in the museums or online. The drawing and arrangement of the print owe a tremendous amount to Kuniyoshi’s rival, Kunisada. In fact the design is close to a number of Kunisada prints of the same character… it is almost as if Yoshitoshi were casting around for an influence outside his studio training.
The print has had a life, it is in poor condition over all but it is sometimes very important to rescue and preserve prints of rarity and significance rather than to concentrate too much upon pristine condition and preservation. Such it is with this print. Probably from 1862, the design is very striking and whilst we have mentioned the influence of Kunisada, subsequent woodblock prints by other artists - for example Kunichika’s portrait of Nikki Danjo from 1869 - themselves owe a great deal to the hollowing out of the character in this direct fashion by Yoshitoshi. All these things, especially since Yoshitoshi is far and away the greatest Japanese artist of the second half of the nineteenth century, make this a very special and unique print.
The story here is a kabuki drama of palace intrigue made wildly popular by the central character, the almost pantomime brilliant Nikki Danjo, who manages to appear in clouds of smoke and disappear likewise, finally transforming into a magical rat. The child Tsuruchiyo has become head of the clan. He is kept in the women’s quarters and looked after by a nurse maid (Masaoka) for fear of assassination. The palace chatelaine and her brother Nikki Danjo plot to kill the young prince. In a moving scene Masaoka’s young son is killed in error but such is her devotion that she shows no emotion and continues the fiction that it is in fact Tsuruchiyo who lies dead. As a result she is handed a scroll with the names of the conspirators. Her true loyalty is finally discovered and a fight ensues which sees a gigantic rat appear on stage and run off with the scroll in its teeth.
The final scene is a classic of kabuki drama. A servant spots the rat and attacks it; it escapes but dramatically re-emerges through a trapdoor in the hanamichi (the stage extension into the theatre audience) in the true form of Nikki Danjo and carrying the scroll in his mouth. He exits the stage as if walking magically on clouds.
The print is full size but has been removed from a backing leaving it thinned in places. There is some wear especially to the lower half and there is some discolouration to the face. Colour is fine and the impression is also fine suggesting a short print run for a then unknown artist.
25 x 37 cm.