Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) Nakamura Utaemon IV as The Nursemaid Komori, 1810’s. Oban.
The Onnagata was an important part of Edo culture; male actors who from an early age, dressed and acted the part of female characters on stage. It was thought that a true onnagata actor could act 'the woman’s manner' better than a woman herself could. Most of the apparent female portraits in Japanese prints are in fact of men… something that people new to Japanese prints can find alarming!
This unusual print by Toyokuni I depicts an actor in the role of a nursemaid. There were various plays and multi-part dance dramas in kabuki theatre where several consecutive roles (hengemono)were all played by the same actor - a means to showcase particular skills as much as anything else.
This print probably shows the kabuki play Mitsumen komori or its predecessor. In it a nursemaid is on her way home from a shrine festival, carrying a baby. As it is such a beautiful spring day, she decides to play under the full-blown cherry blossoms. After putting the baby to sleep, she collects flower petals and enjoys bouncing a ball. But the baby starts to cry. She tries to lull the crying baby to sleep with a story of Okame. Okame is a young girl who performs a dance with a bell for a shrine festival. She encounters Ebisu, the god of good fortune, who in high spirits with wine makes an overture. Okame and Ebisu fight after she tells him she is marrying someone else. Meanwhile, at a nearby shrine, Okame's other suitor Hyottoko, a happy man, prays that his love for Okame is fulfilled.
There is another, kamigata-e version of the subject which makes a good companion to this piece. This is an unusual design for Toyokuni; the nursemaid holds a pinwheel toy in one hand and carries the child on her back. Colour and impression here are very fine, as is the drawing which is unusually fluid. The entire background of the print is liberally scattered with mica which is unusual for Toyokuni I. There is some very slight discolouration but otherwise the condition of the print is very good.
25cm x 37cm.