Kunichika, Matches for Kana Syllables - Rokusaburo

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) Matches for the Kana Syllables: Rokusaburo, 1866. Oban.

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This energetic print by Kunichika comes from quite early in his very long career. This is a very complicated print. In essence, the series celebrates the privately organised fire brigades of Edo. Edo (sometimes called "City of Fires"), was perhaps the most fire prone city in the world; there is a saying: "Fires and quarrels are the flowers of Edo, yet the greater essence is the fireman." There were over five hundred major fires alone in the period between 1851 and 1867. The fires were the result of the paper and timber construction of the houses, the cooking fires and oil lamps and the hot dry conditions and density of the urban population. Naturally enough, citizens responded with alarm and terror at these events and relied on the tough organisations of firemen which had developed into organised gangs since their inception in the 18th century. When a fire alarm sounded, the nearest of the units would rush to the scene and raise a standard known as a Matoi. These solid geometrical forms were unique to each unit and represent quite extraordinary sculptural beauty.

The fire standard in the print is the sculptured object in the upper third. Behind that object in the panel are the tools of the firemen; the scaling ladders and the hooked staves used for tearing thatch off the roof. In the panel below is the kabuki character Rokusaburo grappling a giant fish, sword in his teeth… how then do these disparate elements relate?

The kana alphabet was the old alphabet of kanji characters. It was sometimes seen as an interesting theme for artists to find ways of linking images to the letters of the alphabet, as in this case. In this print the syllable is ro, the firefighting brigades of Edo, which were organised into 48 groups to the west of the Sumida River, each designated by a single kana syllable. The standard then is for the brigade of that syllable, and Rokusaburo begins with that letter also.

The image is of actor Ichimura Kakitsu IV in the role of the carpenter Rokusaburo. After the theft of a valuable painted scroll of a giant fish from a nearby restaurant by two thieves, the carpenter sets off in pursuit of the villains. During a struggle between the three performers, the painted fish magically springs to life and dives into the water. The kabuki scene shown here is a koitsukami (carp grappling scene), which involved gigantic tanks of real water and combat between the actor and the spirit of a giant carp - the fish portrayed via an elaborate mechanical prop. There is a near identical print celebrating a different alphabet by Kunisada from 1856. 

A good clean print. Colour, impression and condition are very good. Unbacked and with margins. A copy of this print is in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

Publisher: Iseya Kanekichi.

25.5 x 37 cm.