Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) A Present-Day Suikoden: Natsume koso Shinsuke, 1861. Oban.
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A fine and unusual series from towards the end of Kunisada’s long life. This print is an illustration from the Chushingura. In 1702 Lord Asano of Ako was provoked by Kira Kozukensuke into drawing his sword in the shogun's palace, for which he was forced to take his own life. Forty seven of his retainers became Ronin - samurai without masters. They vowed revenge on their leader and attacked Kira's palace the following year, decapitating him and carrying his head to lay on Asano's grave. They in turn took their own lives. Because of censorship laws prevailing at the time, direct reference to the action was forbidden. The early 1860’s was a volatile time in Japan - the restoration of the monarchy was just a few years away and the chushingura could be seen as an openly critical assault on the shogunate. Hence for this series, the subjects portrayed are baffling. The characters are neither the actual historic figures nor the normal theatrical proxies. It is an actor portrait series with real characters, dressed in street clothes but portrayed in the manner of the chushingura. The layout, the text and the form of the designs mirrors previous designs by Kuniyoshi and other artists. The ‘characters’ however are popular folk characters of the time… gamblers, bandits and hoodlums.
Natsume Shinsuke was a member of a gambling gang who wreaked havoc in Shimosa province (now part of Chiba prefecture) in 1849, led by Iioka Sukegoro and Hanzo. These anti-establishment figures were heroic figures in the popular culture of the time. He appears in a series Biographies of Modern Men by Yoshitoshi from 1865, a series which mimics Kunisada’s adoption of the Chushingura model and his contemporary themes. Both artists were taking the revered heroes of the eighteenth century and templating them upon frankly criminals of their own age - an act of social and political subversion.
Notwithstanding the content, this is a great print. A fine tattooed subject, colour, impression and condition are all fine.
Published by Iseya Kanekichi.
35 x 25 cm.