Kunichika, Ichimura Uzaemon as Omiwa

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) Ichimura Uzaemon as Omiwa from a set of actor bust portraits,1865. Oban.

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This stunning, boldly designed print by Kunichika leaps off the page, with its brilliant red and green roundel - looking something like a late American abstract painting. Beneath the target stands the diffident figure of Omiwa, the tragic heroine of the kabuki drama Imoseyama Onna Teiken. The play was originally written for the puppet theatre and was to become one of the most dramatic stagings in the kabuki repertoire. The stage is dominated by a great, moving waterfall and two runways on either side that reach into the audience. It consists of several acts, some of which are performed separately. The story of Omiwa is complex and suffered changes and interpretation over the years. Its crux is the love affair between Omiwa and a young man. The symbol of their constancy is a spool of red thread (perhaps seen here in the roundel). In some versions, Omiwa is the daughter of a saki shop owner who is in love with Tankei, a hero and warrior who is protecting the elderly Emperor. Through intrigue, Tankei marries the princess Tachibana. Omiwa, tormented by jealousy is killed so that her blood may be used in a potion to assassinate the tyrant Iruka. Her reward is that she may be united with Tankei in the afterlife.

In this print we see Omiwa holding the spool that is partly concealed beneath her sleeve, her wistful expression alluding to her suspicions about her lover. The print is highly unusual in its boldness and in the abstraction of the spool device. The characterisation of Omiwa through the actor Uzaemon is typical of the late Edo depictions of onnagata actors - the features are clearly very male, the attitude though, designed to summon the essence of woman.

A fine print from early in Kunichika’s theatre career. Very good colour, impression and condition. Embossing to the spool and scatterings of mica. Retains Japanese album backing.

Published by Yamazakiya Seishichi.

26 x 36 cm.