Kunichika, Biographies of the Loyal Retainers - Nakamura Shikan as Terasaka Kichiemon Noboyuki

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) Biographies of the Loyal Retainers (Gishi Meimei Den): Nakamura Shikan as Terasaka Kichiemon Nobuyuki, 1895. Oban.

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This splendid image, bursting with life and colour is from the late and quite rare series, Biographies of the Loyal Retainers (Gishi Meimei Den) by Toyohara Kunichika. It is a picture of one of the rebellious and leaderless samurai from the play and true story of the Chushingura. The great revenge drama of Japanese theatre - the Kanadehon Chushingura of 1848 - is the stage dramatisation of a real incident that occurred in 1702. Because of the stringent censorship at the time, preventing the portrayal of recent events, the setting and many of the characters have been transposed to the fifteenth century. Hence the subject of the play - the enforced suicide of feudal Lord Asano of Ako and the revenge of 47 of his now redundant retainers (ronin) - becomes the suicide of Lord Enya Hangen, a character borrowed from another story and embroidered to fit the role. Of course, theatre audiences and the disenchanted Edo towns people would have have known all of this and to emphasise the point, actors and artists were comfortable to use the Asano family crest on their cobbled together stage persona.

The most famous series of prints (and the definitive one) is really Kuniyoshi’s series of 1847, The Faithful Samurai. This epic single portrait series was massively successful, and set in train any number of series by other artists of which this very rare series by Kunichika is maybe the last in an illustrious line. Kuniyoshi’s masterwork was an historic account - in as much as there is much speculative written history on each sheet. Kunichika’s 1895 series (one of his last great series) is in a different tradition: that of the actor portrait using an apparently unrelated subject matter as a vehicle, in this case, portraits of kabuki actors as illustrious heroes of the great Chushingura. This is a very fine series from Kunichika’s late Meiji period, the drawing is bold - aggressive almost. There is a bravura quality to each of these portraits which is mirrored in the boldness of the traditional dog tooth design of the makeshift uniforms.

In this portrait of Terasaka Kichiemon Nobuyuki, the image is dominated by the almost comical red top, covered in bright pompoms. These adornments called sasakake, are emblems of a Buddhist mountain priest. Terasaka (Teraoka) was one of the loyal ronin but on the night of the attack was sent away in order that his life be saved. As a result of missing the attack, and despite begging that he be condemned along with his comrades, he was in fact spared and spent the rest of his life as a monk, praying for the salvation of the other ronin. It seems that Kunichika is alluding to this later turn of events in the outlandish costume that would not have been worn at the time of the attack.

These late prints signal the end of the indigenous Japanese art of drawn representation. They are anxious pieces, these and similar late works by Kunichika’s colleague Yoshitoshi… sitting between the wave of European culture that was to break across Japanese art at the end of the century and the dying light of Edo culture. Yoshitoshi was perhaps better at assimilating these changes than Kunichika who peers at us from his only known photograph as if from another life.

A very fresh print... colour, condition and impression are fine, but there is an urgency in these prints that gives them a different aspect to similar series of the decade. Rare and exceptional with full margins.

Published by Tsunashima Kamekichi.

25cm x 37cm.