Kunisada, Actors at the 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road - Rokugo Ferry

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

The genesis of this 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 hide 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 three of the finest in the group. 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 audience would have been instantly familiar with the play, the character and the actor in each print.

This dramatic scene shows the suicide of Hirai Gonpachi, played by the actor Onoe Kikugoro III. Gonpachi was a popular character in kabuki plays and as a consequence, for ukiyo-e artists. Gonpachi was a Ronin: a leaderless samurai and street tough. He rescues a girl from the inn of some bandits in return for her warning him that he is to be robbed that night. Later, in the Yoshiwara district he finds the same girl, the daughter of humble grocers, now working as a prostitute in order to keep her elderly parents. Gonpachi, unable to help her this time turns to crime and the play shows how he loses his chivalrous spirit and becomes a murderer - robbing for money to visit the brothel where he sees his lover. Unable to live with himself he commits suicide.

The figure is beautifully realised, as is the gruesome act of suicide which has covered the figure with blood. The background - as in all the prints - is borrowed straight from Hiroshige’s Hoeido edition of The Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido Road; in this case Station Three, Kawasaki. The cartouche in the upper right of the print contains information about the series - though not the play - and is decorated with little pictures of the typical stage furniture of each production.

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.