Kuniyoshi, Japanese and Chinese Comparisons for the Chapters of Genji - Otome

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) Japanese and Chinese Comparisons for the Chapters of Genji: #21 Otome (Lady Kayo) 1855. Oban.

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What an extraordinary print. From a Genji series by Kuniyoshi, the prints illustrate scenes, that as in previous examples, have little or nothing to do with the plot or the characters of the book. The Tales of Genji (Genji Monogatari) is considered the greatest novel in classical Japanese literature, and arguably, the world’s first novel.  It was written in the first decade of the eleventh century by Lady Murasaki, and relates the womanising exploits of Prince Genji.  Each of the fifty-four chapters of the novel is named and is associated with a crest called a Genji-mon.  In this series of prints, the crests, the chapters of the books and the heroic exploits are sometimes wrong, misplaced or obscure, making contemporary interpretation of the prints difficult. The individual titles are written in the Genji-mon cartouche.

The chapter title here - Otome - means Maiden or possibly mistress. The illustration, though not from the Genji is of Lady Kayo, the evil mistress of King Hansoku. Lady Kayo is pictured in the air in her true form as a nine tailed fox. King Hansoku looks on aghast as the evil spirit escapes his grasp. According to Japanese legend, foxes are evil creatures with long lives.  Their magical powers increase, as they grow older.  When 1,000 years old, they become either white or golden in colour and have nine tails. Hansoku was an Indian prince in legend, bewitched by the magical fox in the guise of a woman. There are a number of renderings of  Lady Kayo by Kuniyoshi. In one particularly gruesome print, she takes target practice at the eye of a hapless girl tied to a tree for the entertainment of her consort.

A very important aspect of the print, especially given its age, is the influence of European art on the detail and drawing that Kuniyoshi has employed. It is recorded that despite the danger from the authorities, Kuniyoshi collected European engravings (mainly Dutch) that circulated more or less illegally in the first half of the nineteenth century. These copy books were often not of the best quality and Kuniyoshi has here imitated some of the cliches of European art. Note the classical coffered floor rendered in faulty perspective, the unusual, almost fantastical buildings in the background with their strange domes, the strange costumes and most especially the curious shape and features of Hansoku himself.

A rare and important print. Colour and impression are very good, there is some fading of the fugitive colour and the print is slightly trimmed to the right edge. Overall though, really exceptional.

Published by Ise-Yoshi.

24cm x 36cm.