Kunichika, Ichikawa Danjuro as Sendo Tombei

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) Ichikawa Danjuro as Sendo Tombei, 1898. Oban.

This striking print, fabulously produced, is from a major Kunichika series, The 100 Roles of Ichikawa Danjuro. Danjuro the IX (1839 - 1903) was the pre-eminent kabuki actor of his day. The prints from this series all have a square cartouche in the upper register with a verse in calligraphy; the series title appears in a cartouche surrounded by peonies (Danjuro’s emblem).

Illustrated here is the ferryman Sendo Tombei, from the kabuki play Shinrei Yaguchi no Watashi. As usual with kabuki, the plot is very complicated but the part that we are concerned with here is the refuge sought by Nitta Yoshimine and his lover at the ferryman’s house. Tombei’s daughter Ofuna falls instantly in love with Nitta. Nitta is wanted by the authorities and Tombei returns home to arrest him, thrusting his sword through the ceiling to the room upstairs, wounding Ofuna by mistake. Tombei rushes to light a fire to warn the village while Ofuna runs to the drum tower to signal that Nitta has already been arrested. With the last of her strength, Ofuna beats the drum allowing Nitta Yoshimine to escape. Tombei is meanwhile struck dead in his boat by a stray arrow.

This is a really fine print from one of Kunichika’s best series, issued as a deluxe edition, the print is laden with burnishing, embossing and delicate and beautifully carved printing. The character of the frustrated Tombei in his boat looms out of the print, his hands clenched on his sword in rage. The rich blue abstracted motif in the background is deliberately suggestive of the river which winds through the drama and controls the fate of the protagonists. A great print.