Kunisada, Matches for the 36 Poems - Oshichi

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Matches For The Thirty-six Poems: Oshichi, 1857. Oban.

This rare print is an unusual depiction of women since the principal character, Oshichi is in fact a life sized puppet or Bunraku. Some explanation is needed here to decipher what is going on in the print. The print is a mitate - that is a pun or satire using in this case poetry as an excuse to represent kabuki actors. Various restrictive and intermittent reforms were instigated in the dying years of the Tokugawa administration, and one of these was the proscription of actor representations. Artists got around these laws by concealing actors in landscapes, historical scenes, decorative objects, poems and so on. The practice gave rise to a genre called mitate which toyed with the public (and the censor) over the identification of the actor, the role or the play.

In this case the play is that of the tragic girl Oshichi. (link to other in this show)  Yaoya Oshichi was a young greengrocer’s daughter born in 1667 whose family took refuge in a temple following one of the frequent Tokyo (Edo) fires. There she met and fell in love with a temple page, Kichisa. Oshichi thought that if she started another fire she would be able to shelter longer and stay with the boy she loved. Sadly, her arson was witnessed by others and she was found guilty and burnt at the stake as punishment. The print shows a puppet performance of the play but the focus here is on the puppeteers (Ichikawa Kodanji IV, Bando Muraemon I and Bando Matataro VI), masked with black gauze. The poem and another allusion appears in the cartouche at the top of the page, drawn by Kunisada’s pupil Gengyo Miyagi who worked on several series with Kunisada.

Bunraku was a precursor to kabuki and remained popular throughout the Edo, often being the original source for plays and staging conventions.

The print is a fine impression with very fine colour, condition is very good, trimmed to the  image on vertical edges.

Signed Utagawa Toyokuni hitsu and Gengyo. Published by Shitaya So-to.