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

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

The figure pictured in this elegant print with its fine Hiroshige derived snow scene is Oboshi Yuranosuke played by the actor Sawamura Sojuro III in a scene from any one of the many Chushingura inspired kabuki plays of the time. In summary, the great revenge drama of Japanese theatre - the Kanadehon Chushingura of 1848 - is the stage dramatisation of a real incident that occurred in 1702. The stringent censorship at the time prevented the portrayal of recent events, and so the setting and many of the characters have been transposed to the fifteenth century. Hence the subject of the play - the enforced suicide of feudal Lord Asano of Ako and the revenge of 47 of his now redundant retainers (ronin) - becomes the suicide of Lord Enya Hangen; himself a character borrowed from another story and embroidered to fit the role. Of course, theatre audiences and the disenchanted Edo townspeople would have have known all of this and to emphasise the point, actors and artists were comfortable in using the Asano family crest on their cobbled together stage persona. There was no Oboshi Yuranosuke, the name is a disguise for the real character, Oishi Kuranosuke. Which is all very confusing. The more so because this print is itself in disguise - as a landscape, the subject and the actor now also hidden by censorship.

The only clue here is the Asano crest on the coat of the figure - always seen in portraits of what was still a controversial subject. 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 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.