Kunichika, 36 Views of the Eastern Capital - Yashamitagomon

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) Bando Hikosaburo as Otoyo from Thirty-six Views of the Eastern Capital: Yashamitagomon, 1864. Oban.

Click here for a detailed enlargement.

One of my favourite Kunichika prints, this piece was in a show from April 2014, which compared and contrasted two giants of Japanese printmaking: Kunisada and Kunichika. Kunichika was the former’s pupil and the exhibition of twenty four prints showed how the Utagawa style developed in the work of these two men across an entire century; with prints from 1820 by Kunisada, right up to  Kunichika's portraits of the great kabuki actors Baiko and Ichikawa Danjuro IX in the 1890’s. The two men dominated the world of the theatrical print like no others and their work has come to represent the achievements of Japanese prints across the world, as well as ukiyo-e’s eventual downfall and demise.

A proper companion to the Kunisada piece, The Cat Witch at Shirasuga from Actors at the 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road, this print was actually done in collaboration with Kunisada towards the end of his life. Kunisada produced 16 prints and Kunichika designed 21 prints. An astonishing print and a fabulous and outlandish image - genuinely exciting and otherworldly, the print predicts so much contemporary manga and cartoon design that uses just this type of anthropomorphism and supernatural transformation. In Japanese mythology, the cat has a uniquely bad image. One of the only two creatures that did not weep at the death bed of the Buddha, the cat is associated (like the fox) with possession, transformation and subterfuge. This is a complicated print… the nominal subject is views of Edo (Tokyo), but the real subject of the series is actor portraits. This genre of placing actors in travel scenes began as a way to avoid theatre censorship in the 1840’s and persisted as an art form in itself.

Here we see kabuki actor Bando Hikosaburo in the act of transforming into a cat, his/her true identity being revealed by the shadows cast by the paper lantern. The story concerns prince Nabeshima who sleeps with the beautiful Otoyo, but who starts to sicken. It transpires that Otoyo has been killed by a cat demon that now assumes her shape in order to sleep each night with the prince. His retainers cannot stop his debilitating illness and guard him each night, but cannot help falling asleep under the spell of the demon. One guard embeds a knife in his thigh in order to stay awake and sees the cat revealed in its true form by the shade of an oiled paper lantern. The cat is chased away and eventually hunted down and killed. There is a great deal here about sexual anxiety in men and the supposed wickedness of promiscuous women. The story is identical in form to that of the earth spider and Yorimitsu.

The background is as usual borrowed from Hiroshige’s 1839 landscape series of the same name, a practice begun by Kunisada in his series of actor portraits set on the Tokaido Road and continued throughout the nineteenth century.

A rare print indeed, this piece rarely comes up for sale and is easily the best piece in the series. The print is in good condition and is a very good impression and colour, embossing to the collar.

24 x 35 cm.