Hokuei, Nakamura Utaemon IV as Asahina Tobei

Hokuei Shumbaisai (active 1829 - 1836) Nakamura Utaemon IV as Asahina Tobei From the play Gokusaishiki musume ogi, 1836. Oban.

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This rare and exceptional print dates from the last year of Hokuei’s life. Like the preceeding print, it shows the actor Nakamura Utaemon IV in the role of Asahina Tobei from the play Gokusaishiki musume ogi. There is another quite superb print of this subject elsewhere on the site by the artist Kunikazu. The latter print dates from twenty years after this piece and the differences in the Osaka artists' practice is very clear. The Hokuei displays all of the archaism of the early period of Osaka print production: the oban format, the vegetable colours, the thinner quality of ink - almost like water colour - but most of all in its manner of representation. Here we see Hokuei drawing Utaemon in a contained, near abstract, ball of anxiety; his arms and legs twisted in a disabling stance. Kunikazu on the other hand has the actor in a dramatic theatrical pose; almost conventional, despite the attenuated drawing of the hands. We are looking at the stage in the Hokuei; hence the drawing of the village houses has a flattened almost naive quality of what is in fact a backdrop. By the time of the Kunikazu, we are confronted by a hybrid which is both historical scene and theatrical portrait; there is no such confusion in the earlier, more direct representation.

The play itself was performed at the Naka no Shibai theatre in Osaka in 1836, Hokuei’s picture being contemporary with that performance. (It was originally written by Chikamatsu Hanji and others for the puppet theatre in Osaka in 1760). In the play, Tobei inadvertently murders his stepbrother, a pious and blind young man, on a rainy night. Utaemon was to leave Osaka for Edo  in 1838; this event, and the deaths of other leading Osaka actors, (and the death of Hokuei himself in 1836) saw the closing of what might be called the archaic period of Osaka print activity. There follows a hiatus, marred by the devastating Tempo reforms of the 1840’s, leading to the flowering of the new wave of artists, publishers and actors of the mid-century.

The print itself is terrific. The design, very late in the artist’s career, is rare and only known in a few impressions is full size. Colour and impression are fine, the condition is excellent.

Published by Tenki.