Kuniyoshi, 36 Fashionable Restaurants of the Eastern Capital

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) 36 Fashionable Restaurants of the Eastern Capital:  The Carpenter Rokusaburo, 1852. Oban.

This is such a striking design, the gigantic carp nearly bursting from the confines of the border. It is the finest print from a series of 1852 depicting kabuki actors in character with an illustration of a restaurant in the background. The cartouche in the upper right corner is decorated by props from the play - in this case the kabuki drama Mijikayo ukina no chirashigaki.

In this dynamic design, Kuniyoshi shows Onoe Kikugoro II in the role of the carpenter Rokusaburo. After the theft of a valuable painted scroll of a giant fish from a nearby restaurant by two thieves, the carpenter sets off in pursuit of the villains. During a struggle between the three performers, the painted fish magically springs to life and dives into the water. Kuniyoshi shows Rokusaburo wrestling with the giant fish, the restaurant behind him crowded with diners.

The kabuki scene shown here is a koitsukami (carp grappling scene), which involved gigantic tanks of real water and combat between the actor and the spirit of a giant carp - the fish portrayed via an elaborate mechanical prop. The Onoe lineage of actors were famous for their skills in these water play drama (mizu kiyogen). The restaurant pictured in the background is the Yagenori restaurant in Edo. There exists an almost identical design of the same scene by Kunisada from 1858.

This series rarely comes onto the market. The print is a fine impression that has been trimmed at the top and right hand side. The colour is good on the whole although there is some fading. The drawing and printing of the fish is beautifully detailed and realised as is the desperation on Rokusaburo’s face.

Published by Yamaguchi-ya Tobei.

The print is in the collection of the MFA Boston.