Kunichika, The Story of Oshichi

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) The Story of Oshichi from Shochikubai Yushima no Kakegaku, 1860’s. Oban Triptych.

This iridescent Kunichika print tells a tragic story of a real incident involving a sixteen year old girl and her love for a temple servant. The print illustrates the kabuki play drawn from the story.

Yaoya Oshichi was a young greengrocers daughter born in 1667 whose family took refuge in a temple following one of the frequent Tokyo (Edo) fires. There she met and fell in love a  temple page, Kichisa. Oshichi thought that if she started another fire she would be able to shelter longer and stay with the boy she loved. Sadly, her arson was witnessed by others and she was found guilty and burnt at the stake as punishment. There was subsequently a great deal of sympathy for the fate of the girl, principally because of her age. The kabuki drama was based on her life and death, however the circumstances were changed to show Oshichi sounding the temple fire alarm in order to see Kichisa. The conclusion remained the same since the false sounding of the alarm was also punishable by death.

The theme of someone dying for love was popular amongst Edo audiences and there were novels, plays and dances based on her tragic and youthful folly. Her grave remains at the Enji-ji Temple and people still bring gifts of fruit and vegetables to this day.

This is a very fine triptych; we see Oshichi climbing the fire tower and her lover on the right, horrified at her actions. A witness with a shamisen looks on in the left hand sheet. The background shows fire watchers silhouetted against the dark sky holding orange lanterns. The print is alive with dramatic contrasts of orange and black and blue, the angular motion of the actors and the architecture of the tower all adding to the movement and heightened tension of the scene.

Kunichika produced many hundreds of kabuki triptychs and some, like this one, are really exceptional pieces of design. Full size, fine early edition with unfaded colours.