Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) Waves of an Excellent Composition from the series Popular Otokodate Ditties, 1865. Oban.
This enigmatic piece is from a short series of five prints, which all represent otokodate or street toughs, paired with popular songs of the day. As was the habit, post the 1840’s censorship drive, the street tough is actually a kabuki actor - Sawamura Tossho II.
Otokodate were an archetype of kabuki more than anything else. In the popular imagination (especially of the nineteenth century) the early Edo period was lawless and yet social class was strictly defined. Peasants were without rights in the presence of samurai and the imbalance led to horrific abuses of privilege and great tragedy. It became popular to invent stories of retribution and justice where the hero was a rough and ready, yet brave and principled character who, when witnessing samurai cruelty, stepped in to defend the underdog. This class of popular hero became known as the Otokodate. The ideal Otokodate would have been originally from the samurai class, poor himself and yet uninterested in reward for its own sake. He would be a supreme combatant and effortlessly charming and successful (especially with women). Above all, in his own way, he should hold the key principles of Bushido (the traditional samurai code) very clearly – especially those of honour and duty.
In this piece Kunichika pictures Tossho holding a scroll of, presumably, a popular song. He carries the accoutrements of the otokodate - including a long flute which was not for playing but for use in fights. The background to these prints is a lovely all-over pattern of trees against a night sky; the cartouche carries the song lyric.
A lovely print, full size, fine colour, fine impression and condition. Unbacked.
This print is illustrated on page 79 of Amy Reigle Newland, Time Past and Time Present: Images of a Forgotten Master, Hotei Publishing 1999.
Published by Kagaya Kichiemon.