Kuniyoshi, Selection for the Twelve Signs - Shirai Gonpachi

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) Selection for the Twelve Signs: Shirai Gonpachi (Dog) 1852. Oban.

This very fine print, atmospheric and mysterious and beautifully realised is from one of several series about the zodiacThe Buddhist zodiac consists of twelve animals: rat, bull, tiger, hare, dragon, serpent, horse, goat, monkey, cock, dog and boar.  There is a story that only these twelve animals came when called by Buddha, and this is the order in which they came. In this series of prints, various historical and mythical figures are likened to the twelve animals of the zodiac.  A tiny image of the appropriate animal may be found on the edge of the title cartouche. This journey whilst literal to some extent, is really the journey from honour and dignity to dishonour and disgrace. Gonpachi is a Ronin (a leaderless samurai - a gun for hire) and the scene here refers to an incident…  “where it happened that one day a dog belonging to him fought with another dog belonging to a fellow-clansman, and the two masters, being both passionate youths, disputing as to whose dog had had the best of the fight, quarrelled and came to blows, and Gonpachi slew his adversary; and in consequence of this he was obliged to flee from his country, and make his escape to Edo.” (Redesdale, Tales of Old Japan, 1871).

Gonpachi falls for a beautiful girl who takes up prostitution in order to support her ailing relatives. Gonpachi, unable to bear her plight and lacking money, turns to robbery and murder and is eventually hanged for his crimes. His story mirrors his journey from the countryside to the ignominy of the Yoshiwara (the red light district) of Edo.

Kuniyoshi alludes to Gonpachi’s initial descent via the story of the fighting dogs - two puppies are drawn in Kuniyoshi’s characteristic style in the mount of the right hand cartouche. The drawing of Gonpachi, taking his first steps on the road to ruin, is especially expressive - the bowed shame of the stance and the tentative outstretched foot. There is a very good print by Hokuei of the same subject which might well act as a model for Kuniyoshi’s treatment of the figure.

A fine print, early edition with very good colour and impression. the condition is very good, trimmed to the image.

Published by Enshu-ya Matabei.

36cm x 24cm.