Kunisada, 69 Stations of the Kisokaido Road - Okute

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) The Sixty-nine Stations of the Kisokaido Road #48: Okute, 1852. Oban.

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The fantastic portrait of the actor Nakamura Utaemon IV, standing in as a landscape print of the Biwa Pass at Okute, is a conundrum. All of the literature ascribes the portrait in the role of Kagekiyo from the play Hyuga (Hyuga Kagekiyo). The depiction though is clearly that of Shunkan, a monk involved in the Shishigatani plot to overthrow Taira no Kiyomori in the twelfth century.

The play, Heike Nyogo-ga-Shima, was a favourite of the Ichikawa line of actors. Originally a puppet play (bunraku) only the act Shunkan was usually staged in kabuki. Three characters, including Shunkan, are exiled to a remote island for the plot against Kiyomori. The men are pardoned but as they reach the shore, Shunkan learns that his wife has been executed. He kills the envoy who tells him this news thus guaranteeing his permanent exile on the island. The play ends with the tragic figure of Shunkan waving in isolation to the departing ship.

The vogue for travel prints was started by Hiroshige with his immensely popular series of post stations of the Tokaido road. As the Edo government faltered in the mid-century, censorship forbade the illustration of actors and hence artists like Kuniyoshi and Kunisada developed a form called the mitate - a way of picturing actors whilst appearing to show something else. Hence this series is nominally a travel guide to the Kisokaido road (the inland route to Kyoto), but as this piece illustrates, was a thinly veiled exercise in portraying popular actors in sometimes subversive roles. The necessary secrecy makes the latter identification consequently difficult.

It’s a great print - fabulous characterisation in the drawing of Shunkan, with a real terror in his gaze as he looks seawards towards the departing ship. His hands are outstretched, his face a mask of despair. In the distance, the boat departs, containing his two companions. The cartouche contains small illustrations - clues to the drama - possibly in this case, the unfurled letter of pardon. A fine print, unevenly trimmed, otherwisein excellent condition with very fine colour and impression.

Published by Kaga-ya Yasubei.

36cm x 25cm.