Kunisada, The Evil Nikki Danjo

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) The Evil Nikki Danjo in the play Meiboku Sendai Hagi, 1816. Oban triptych.

Kunisada prints from 1816, especially triptychs, very rarely come onto the market. Let’s not forget that this print is two hundred years old and is in remarkable condition for its age.  The print illustrates a very well known kabuki villain Nikki Danjo in the play Meiboku Sendai Hagi, which involves the tale of a palace intrigue and real events involving the Date clan of Sendai during the 1660’s, although again, because of censorship over historic subject matter in the theatre, names dates and details have been changed.

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.

This is a very popular subject in ukiyo-e. There are many prints of Nikki Danjo, dressed in grey, floating on a cloud emanating from a giant rat. In this print we can clearly see the influence of Kunisada’s teacher Toyokuni I in the drawing of the figures. Danjo is pictured left on a cloud of smoke, his form as a rat with the disputed scroll in its teeth is shown in the centre panel wrestling with the guards and the nursemaid Masaoka is shown holding a lantern in the right hand panel.

This is an important early Kunisada work, bold and confidently drawn, the centre group of figures is a fine piece of drawing as is the comical portrayal of the giant rat. The colour on this piece is very good, the impression is fine with extensive gauffrage (embossing). The condition of the print is good, with some light soiling and a visible album fold on the right hand side of the right panel. Overall a very fine piece.