Kunisada, The 7 Variations of the Iroha - Onoe Kikugoro III as Rokusaburo

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) The Seven Variations of the Iroha (Seisho Nanatsu Iroha): Onoe Kikugoro III as Rokusaburo, 1856. Oban.

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This dramatic print of a muscular individual wrestling a giant carp is a confusing print to untangle. The point of this very large series was to illustrate the calligraphic variations - seven in all - of the old kana phonetic alphabet. Each print represents one syllable - in this case ri - written in seven different ways as seen in the folding screen in the upper part of the print. The screen (reading from right to left) has a decorative cartouche of an animal mouth and repeated Toshidama seals. The screen proper has a blank face and then the four black faces with seven syllables in white calligraphy.

The image is of Onoe Kikugoro III in the role of the carpenter Rokusaburo. After the theft of a valuable painted scroll of a giant fish from a nearby restaurant by two thieves, the carpenter sets off in pursuit of the villains. During a struggle between the three performers, the painted fish magically springs to life and dives into the water. The kabuki scene shown here is a koitsukami (carp grappling scene), which involved gigantic tanks of real water and combat between the actor and the spirit of a giant carp - the fish portrayed via an elaborate mechanical prop. The Onoe lineage of actors were famous for their skills in these water play drama (mizu kiyogen). There exists an almost identical design of the same scene by Kuniyoshi from 1852.

Joly does not reference the legend of Rokusaburo, but has plenty of stories about the carp:

CARP (Koi). Often represented leaping a waterfall, in allusion to a Chinese story of a sturgeon of the Hang- Ho, which having swam up the river, crossed the rapids of Lung Men (Dragon Gate), on the third day of the third month, and itself became a dragon. The carp is an attribute of Kinko, Ebisu, Kensu. On the Tango no Sekku, or boys' festival, taking place on the 5th of May, huge Carps, made of paper or of cotton cloth, are attached to masts and poles, one for each boy in the household, as an allusion to the emblematic perseverance of the A'oz, which swims against the current and even attempts to leap waterfalls. In a like manner, the boy is expected to fight against adversity and reach a fortunate position in the world.

This is a terrific and dynamic print showing the dramatic struggle between the carpenter and the magic fish. The printing is disarmingly sophisticated - especially around the body and the scales of the fish, which shimmer and undulate from the shaded underprinting. Mica to the fish scales. Colour and impression are all fine, some trimming to the lower and right margin otherwise fine condition.

Published by Hayashiya Shogoro, signed Toyokuni ga.

24 x 36 cm.