Kunisada, Iwai Kumesaburo III as Benten kozo Kikunosuke from Toyokuni Manga zue

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865)  Iwai Kumesaburo III in the role of Benten kozo Kikunosuke in the play Benten Kozo from the series Toyokuni Manga zue, 1860. Oban.

Another print from the outstanding series by Kunisada from 1860, Toyokuni Manga zue. This is an unusual piece;  the bulk of this series (twenty prints) are actor bust portraits, but an additional ten prints show theatrical scenes from well known kabuki performances and are much less common. This fine print from the second part shows the actor Iwai Kumesaburo III in the role of Benten kozo Kikunosuke from the play Benten Kozo.

This is an enjoyable reversal of roles - this being a show about female impersonation. The act of the play illustrated here is called the Hamamatsuya (The Draper’s Shop). Benten is a typical otokodate - a young handsome rake, who leaves his samurai family to join a gang of bandits. In this scene, Benten dresses as a woman and visits a draper’s shop with a fellow thief. They engage the owner in a complex fraud - substituting a piece of their own fabric for the draper’s, ostentatiously stealing it and then claiming compensation for wrongful arrest when they produce a receipt from another shop. The plan goes wrong when Benten’s lavishly tattooed arm slips out of the sleeve of his kimono. Kunisada illustrates this moment - giving us an unusual homoerotic image of the tattoo, what appears to be a revealed breast and a woman’s head and gesture, belied by the samurai sword casually propped against the nearby cabinet.

It is a fine and complex piece of work and typical of the quality of thought, of design and of production that went into the series. The print is slightly trimmed on the right hand edge, otherwise very fine impression, colour and condition.

Signed Toyokuni ga, published by Ibaya Kyubei