Kunichika, Onoe Kikugoro V as Nikki Danjo from Twelve Drinks at Restaurants - A Story in One Gulp

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) Twelve Drinks at Restaurants: A Story in One Gulp: Onoe Kikugoro V as Nikki Danjo, 1870. Oban.

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There isn’t quite room for the whole delightful title of this print, Rat ('Ne'): The Kôshiya Restaurant in Asakusa: Onoe Kikugorô V, poetry name Baikô, as Nikki Danjô; from the series Twelve Drinks at Restaurants: A Story in One Gulp ('Kaiseki Jûnishu Hitokuchi Banashi')!

There is a great deal going on here and therefore a tremendous amount of interest in this one sheet. The print would likely have been part of a series dreamed up by an entrepreneurial print publisher. He would have persuaded twelve restaurants each to commission the artist Kunichika to make a print that associates a famous kabuki actor and a famous role with their restaurant… to add amusement the actor would then be associated in turn with a sign of the zodiac - in this case the rat.

The combination of the story , the actor and the sign constitutes the sub-title: A Story in One Gulp ('Kaiseki Jûnishu Hitokuchi Banashi). Nikki Danjo is the kabuki theatre’s own pantomime demon. Danjo is the anti-hero of the play Meiboku Sendai Hagi, which involves the tale of a palace intrigue and real events involving the Date clan of Sendai during the 1660’s, although because of censorship over historic subject matter in the theatre, names, dates and details were changed.

In the story, the child Tsuruchiyo has become head of the clan. He is kept in the women’s quarters and looked after by a nurse maid (Masaoka) for fear of assassination. The palace chatelaine and her brother Nikki Danjo  plot to kill the young prince. In a moving scene Masaoka’s young son is killed in error but such is her devotion that she shows no emotion and continues the fiction that it is in fact Tsuruchiyo who lies dead. Having proved her loyalty she is handed a scroll with the names of the conspirators. The scroll is stolen by a rat (in reality the wicked Danjo who is an evil magician). The final scene is a classic of kabuki drama. A servant spots the rat and attacks it; it escapes but dramatically re-emerges through a trapdoor in the hanamichi (the stage extension into the theatre audience) in the true form of Nikki Danjo, and carrying the scroll in his mouth. He exits the stage as if walking magically on clouds.

In this great print, we see a playbill, tied with black ribbon and a portrait of Danjo, looking grey and menacing. The embossed hanging sign to the right advertises the title and the subtle, thoughtful silhouette in the bottom right is of the actor, Onoe Kikugorô V… the famous star Baiko, in a contemplative pose backstage holding a fan.

A lovely print with a great and complex story. The print is trimmed to the image, with Japanese album backing. Very fine colour, impression and condition. There is a copy of this print in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.  

Publisher: Sawamuraya Seikichi

24 x 35.5 cm.