Kunisada, 36 Selected Flowers - Heron Grass, Sawamura Tossho II

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Popular Matches for Thirty-six Selected Flowers (Tosei mitate sanjuroku kasen): Heron Grass, Sawamura Tossho II, 1863. Oban.

This is a masterful late print by Kunisada, displaying very simply the principle of mitate - a thing standing for or punning with something quite different. In this case the popular bandit Yoshibei and the common snap dragon flower or Heron Grass as it is sometimes known in Japan. The question is, what connects the two?

Mitate grew in popularity as a response to strict censorship laws in the 1840’s which prohibited direct depictions of actors. Ironically (as is so often the case) this led to a revival in ukiyo prints as artists created elaborate visual puns to get around the new legislation.

Sawamura Tossho is shown playing the role Ume no Yoshibei, a Robin Hood character or otokadate. These were street gangs, the forerunners of the modern day yakuza, who were said to protect people from lawless samurai. In the play, Yoshibei murders a young man for money and during the fight, Yoshibei’s finger is bitten off.  The victim turns out to be the brother of Yoshibei’s wife Kuomi. Kuomi finds Yoshibei’s finger in her dead brother's mouth and realises that he has been murdered by her husband. She kills herself in grief, having cut off her own finger. The white herons and black crows on the kimono of Ume no Yoshibei symbolize innocence and bad luck respectively. This pattern immediately identifies the character of Yoshibei. Kunisada has pictured the heron grass in the upper  right cartouche from the series of flowers and made allusion to the herons on the characteristic garb of the the subject.

This is a superb print with unfaded colour and an outstandingly crisp and fresh impression.  There is strong visible woodgrain and the whole print shimmers with contrasting shades and colours. The design of the kimono is especially striking, again contrasting the black crows with the white herons on the dark ground. Fine colour, impression and condition.

Published by Hiranoya Shinzo, block-cutter Hori Tashichi.
This print is in the collection of the MFA Boston.