Kunisada, The Heroes of the Storehouse of the Loyal Retainers - Amakawaya Gihei

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) The Heroes of the Storehouse of the Loyal Retainers (Chushingura meimei den): Amakawaya Gihei, 1855. Oban.

This series is an earlier excursion into actor Chushingura prints by Kunisada. More conventional than the 1864 series, Kunisada here presents pairs of actors (onnagata feature heavily in the series), in role as if on stage. One can barely ascertain the subject at first glance; the dog-tooth decoration to the large cartouche however signifies a Chushingura subject matter. This is a very well produced series, the portraits are sensitive and well observed, print quality is excellent, and there is a great deal of attention paid here to the details of texture and pattern in the fabric. The colours are dense and deeply shaded and the piece has a seductive range of nocturnal tones that lend it a great richness and depth.

The print depicts the little performed 10th act of the Chushingura. In this act, the merchant Gihei is tasked with providing the equipment for the raid on the palace. The Ronin test his loyalty by demanding that he divorce his wife, Osono and send her back to her father, so that she can marry someone else. The complex narrative results in Gihei being eventually rewarded with reconciliation with Osono. The print shows Gihei holding the letter of divorce and his wife looking stoically on, accepting her fate and betraying pride in her husband’s fortitude. Given the anniversary this year, I am strongly reminded of the First World War propaganda pictures produced by the British government, encouraging young wives to take much the same attitude to certain widowhood and death.

A rich and evocative print, colour, impression and condition are all fine.

Published by Iseya Kanekichi, blockcutter Hori Take.

36cm x 25cm.