Kuniyoshi, Selections for the 12 Zodiac Signs - Monkey

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) Selections for the Twelve Zodiac Signs (Mitate junishi no uchi) Monkey (Saru) 1852. Oban.

In 1852 Kuniyoshi executed a remarkable series called The Selection for the Twelve Signs. In the tradition of avoiding the frequent prohibitions on portraying actors in woodblock prints, Kuniyoshi chose to set well-known stars in dramatic roles whilst nominally illustrating the animals of the Buddhist zodiac - you can see the monkeys holding hands around the cartouche on the top right of the picture. The symbol for monkey is the first and largest character on the inset.

The real subject of this print then is not the zodiac but the portrait of the actor Iwai Hanshiro as the nun Seigen and the minor character, Onoe Kikugoro as Sarushima Sota seen in the background rowing a small boat. The scene depicted is from the play Onna Seigen (The Nun Seigen). The drama is as usual long, complicated and deals with the betrothal of the heroes, the tragedy of love gone wrong and the tragic consequences. In the play, Hanako is in love with a mystical schemer called Matsuwakamaru; on hearing rumours of his death, Hanako decides to become a nun, changing her name to Seigen. A villain called Sarushima Sota (in the boat), tries to woo Seigen and uses any number of tricks to seduce her - including giving her a pair of sandals woven from aphrodisiac grass.

The scene in the print is from Act III, Scene 2: the ferry on the Sumida River. The nun Seigen, who has taken alms to a beggar, takes a ferryboat, manned by Sota, to get back across the river to her hermitage. By the light of fires aboard whitebait fishing boats, she sees Matsuwakamaru in one of the passing crafts. But the current of the river unmercifully takes her away from him.

Of course, as in so much kabuki theatre, the drama ends in tragedy and the death of Seigen. The final scene sees her reincarnated as a ghost, finally inhabiting the temple bell as a snake, longing for Matsuwakamaru. There is no reference to monkeys in the play and no obvious pun between saru (monkey) and the title of the play. Kuniyoshi’s choice may refer to the cunning of Sarushima Sota in his attempts at the seduction of Seigen.

This is a great series and a fine example of the mid-century craze for mitate. The print is in fine condition and has excellent colour and a fine impression. Trimmed to the image and unbacked.

Published by Kakumoto-ya Kinjiro.

25cm x 36cm.