Kunichika, The Gang of Five Coming Home Like Wild Ducks - Pentaptych

Toyohara Kunichika(1835-1900) The Gang of Five Coming Home Like Wild Ducks, 1863. Oban pentaptych.

This piece is so unusual and so rare. A complete, surviving pentaptych by Kunichika in very fine condition; not only that, it dates from 1863 - very early in the artist’s career and before he had fully developed his mature style. The piece rightly has a full page illustration in Amy Riegle Newland’s monograph on Kunichika. It shows the five actors Sawamura Tanosuke III as Karigani Bunshichi, Ichimura Uzaemon XII as Abe Hanbei, Nakamura Shikan IV as Kaminari Kocuro, Kawarazaki Gonjuro I as Senemon and Sawamura Tossho II as Hotei Ichiemon in front of a silhouette of people traipsing to work in the early light. The style and overall design of the pentaptych is borrowed from Utagawa Kunisada’s similar piece from the previous year. The actor portraits are changed but there is enough in the design to see the prints as an homage to the younger Kunichika’s teacher.

Wonderful details abound in this print; the actors' individual mons or crests are cleverly illuminated in the lanterns of the peasants who process in the distance, the great beauty and inventiveness of the kimono designs, the subtlety of light and shade in the background and the gesture of the individuals labouring before daybreak contrasted with the heroes in the foreground.

The prints illustrate a play based on the actual activities of a group of thieves in 18th century Japan. Bunshichi was the leader of the 'Five Chivalrous Men' who were executed in 1702. Their exploits formed the basis of many puppet and then kabuki plays in the following centuries. The men's roles were eventually changed to otokodate - heroic commoners who stood up to the  powerful samurai on behalf of the people. The characters are also the subject of a very early 1915 movie Karigane Bushichi.

These prints are exquisite and exceptional. The rich decoration of the kimonos and the overall monochrome scheme contrasts with the small highlights of orange illumination in the lanterns and cartouches. Colour and impression are very fine as is condition. The prints are only available as a set of five. They are currently individually mounted without windows. We are able to window mount them as well or else, subject to extra shipping costs, mount them as a full landscape pentaptych.

Signed Itto Kunichika ga within toshidama cartouche; block carver, Horiko Shincho; published by Izutsuya.

This print is illustrated on page 72 of Amy Reigle Newland, Time Past and Time Present, Images of a Forgotten Master,  Hotei Publishing 1999.