Kunichika, Shakkyo Dance

Toyohara Kunichika, Shakkyo Dance Performed by Ichikawa Danjuro, Sawamura Tossho and Otani Tomoemon, 1878. Oban Triptych.

An extraordinary triptych of great beauty, power and vitality. A masterpiece of design, the white circles of the costumes dance across the sheets bursting against the blue and red backgrounds. The enormous lion wigs, deeply embossed with countless incised hairs fill the page. This is the famous Shakkyo or lion dance. The Shakkyo is a legendary narrow bridge. In kabuki, a lion is playing with his cubs on the bridge but loses one over the precipice. They are eventually reunited and dance exuberantly. The adult lion traditionally wears a white wig and the cubs, red wigs: 

This lion is invariably associated with the peony flower which attracts him, and butterflies which irritate him. The peony affords the decorative color for a stage property, and the butterflies create movement. In this there is a basic esthetic satisfaction for the spectator in witnessing an expression of the duality of the lion's nature; repose (symbolized by the peonies) and anger (aroused by the butterflies). (Faubion Bowers in Japanese Theatre, Hermitage House, 1952.)

The print has another layer of meaning. Nakamura Shikan plays Hidetaro a sixteenth century warlord who has three sons who will eventually turn on him and defeat him. Hidetaro attempts to buy their loyalty but eventually fails. The two characters on the left and right of the print are Jiro and Saburo respectively, represented as his sons by their red wigs. Kunichika elides the traditional dance with the legend of Hidetaro in a piece that will become the story of Ran, the famous 1985 film by Akira Kurosawa.

Three sheets unattached, fine colours and impression in near perfect condition. Some small offsetting on the central panel, otherwise fine. Deeply incised embossing to the hairs of the wigs.

A version of this print is in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

730 x 360 cm.