Kunisada, Hakkenden - Genpachi and Shino Fighting on the Roof of the Governor's Palace

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Nanso Stomi Hakkenden: Genpachi and Shino Fighting on the Roof of the Governor's Palace, 1852. Oban diptych.

This fantastic scene is from one of the most popular of the Edo stories, The Eight Dog Heroes or Hakkenden as it is known. Originally a novel which took thirty years to complete, it was quickly turned into a popular kabuki play. The complex plot centres on the eight offspring of a supernatural marriage between a princess and her father’s dog. Shamed at the birth of her children, she kills herself and the eight beads of her rosary, each representing a Buddhist virtue, become crystal orbs and disperse, the children being reborn to normal mothers sixteen years later. The plot twists and turns as the eight brothers become acquainted as adults. This scene shows two of the brothers, Inukai Genpachi on the left and Inuzuka Shino fighting on a rooftop, unaware of the identity of each other. They are reconciled, before it is too late, by Daisuke whose task it is to contact all of the siblings. Genpachi here is played by Seki Sanjuro III and Shino by Bando Shuka I.

This is a stunning design; rooftop fight scenes were popular in kabuki and afforded ukiyo-e artists the chance to show dramatic perspectives and viewpoints as Kunisada does in this print. The strong diagonal of the roof tree effortlessly locks the eye with the equally powerful thrust of Shino’s sword and outthrust arm, tying the disparate elements of the print tightly together. These quite western compositional techniques work well in the woodblock medium and are quite contrary to traditional Chinese and Japanese painting. The powerful diagonals are inherent in the sweep of the roof tiles going lower left to upper right and continuation of the sword arm with Genpachi’s outstretched leg traveling upper right to lower left. The whole scene floats on a pillow of yellow smoke.

The impression and colour of this diptych are superb. There are vertical album folds at the right hand side of each sheet but no binding holes and this copy is the least trimmed of any we have seen. There is some rubbing to the lower corners.

Signed Toyokuni ga in Toshidama seal, published by Yorozuya Kichibei.