Kunisada, Actor Portraits Past and Present - Iwai Kumesaburo III as Miuraya no Agemaki

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865). Actor Portraits Past and Present: Iwai Kumesaburo III as Miuraya no Agemaki, 1860. Deluxe Oban.

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The third of the great okubi-e in this exhibition, this print by Kunisada is another of the great actor portraits from what is widely considered to be his finest series. The print explodes off the page - a terrific and joyous celebration of colour, pattern and characterisation. Out of the scalp of the actor Iwai Kumesaburo III sprouts a wild confusion of swooping lines of striated hair and a forest of wooden hair pegs (kanzashi) - signifiers of the high status of the character (a tayu), the prostitute Miuraya no Agemaki. The two bright half moon shapes are the backs of ornamental combs (kushi) which also signify her status. The face stares into the middle distance, signifying the dilemma that is at the heart of the play. Below, the rolled tissues show the real occupation of the Japanese courtesan - a visual sign that was not missed by the Edo townsmen. Of course the portrait is not that of a woman but the male actor Iwai Kumesaburo III, playing an onnagata role.

Agamaki is the lover of Sukeroku (also the title of the kabuki drama) and also the old samurai Ikyu. Sukeroku is in fact Soga Goro, the well known hero of the epic Soga monagatori, in disguise. He is trying to discover the identity of his father’s assassin and suspects the old man of possessing his father’s sword. The play shows the verbal sparring between the two male leads as Sukeroku attempts to get the samurai to draw his weapon.  There is a great deal of comedy in the play, Sukeroku being the classic archetype of the  otokodate - the street-tough, romantic, reckless hero. Agemaki has to decide between the reckless young man or the certainty of her future with the aged warrior. In the final act, Sukeroku tricks the old man into drawing his sword, showing himself to be the killer of Sukeroku’s father. Kunichika portrayed Agamaki in his very fine series 36 Good and Evil Beauties.

This is a very good print, colour, impression and condition are all fine and the exceptional care that went into the production of the series lends the prints an extraordinary and brilliant quality. Burnishing to selected areas, embossing to collar.  Superb early edition.

Published by Ebisuya Shishichi, signed kio Toyokuni ga.

36 x 24 cm.