Kunisada, Actors at the 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road - Hatajaku

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Actors at The Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido Road (Tokaido gojusan-tsugi no uch): Hatajaku, 1852. Oban.

Click here for a detailed enlargement.

It is a wonder to me, when looking at Kunisada’s designs for his 1852 Tokaido Road woodblock print series, that these fine art works are not ravenously sought after by collectors not just of Japanese prints, but anyone with an aesthetic bone in their body. Setting aside the usual shrug of the collector who is used to seeing the images reproduced in catalogues, and reassessing the individual designs, I am struck very forcibly by the brillliant boldness, the complex characterisation and the sheer bravura of these really very great designs.

The genesis of the series is described elsewhere, but in outline, the work was a response to punitive censorship of representations of actors and kabuki roles in the mid-century. It was therefore necessary to ‘disguise’ the real subject - in this case the actor and particularly the character being portrayed. There are however all sorts of clues, this being Edo Japan. The portraits in this series are all very distinctive - as is this one, one of the finest in the group. The audience would have been instantly familiar with the play, the character and the actor. Kunisada was obliged to disguise the subject by introducing the landscape backgrounds, almost all of them borrowed from his colleague Hiroshige who, as a landscape artist, was immune to the privations of his fellow artists caused by the draconian new laws.

The print shows the actor Bando Zenji as Nyudu Shinsai, sometimes called Namazu Bozu, the Catfish Priest. He is always presented on stage with the distinctive side whiskers that are reminiscent of the whiskers of the catfish and the delightful octopus embellished costume. The play, Shibaraku, is a short sequence often used to introduce that season’s actors. Its name is humorous, deriving from the unscripted offstage shout of a famous actor awaiting his call during a previous performance. The action concerns the likely execution of four people and the timely intervention of the hero. The Catfish Priest is a henchman of the villain. Bando Zenji is another stage name for the actor Bando Hikozaemon, whose excellent portrait occurs later in this exhibition.

This is a very striking print.  Colour and impression are excellent. The print has been mounted on thin card in the past and this is reflected in the price.

Published by  Tsujiokaya Bunsuke.