Hokuei, Sawamura Kunitaru as the Nun Shungetsu

Hokuei Shumbaisai (active 1829 - 1836), Sawamura Kunitaru as the Nun Shungetsu, 1834. Oban Triptych.

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Hokuei is a rare and collectable artist. Osaka print runs even at the height of kabuki mania in the 1840’s were short. This print dates from the 1830’s and before the habitual use of the smaller chuban format that became popular after the Tenpo Reforms.

The print shows a scene, realistic and hard to picture as a stage-set, resplendent with Japanese garden and summer house. The figures are minor characters from one of the many rewrites of the story of the 47 Ronin - The Chushingura. The character in the centre is the controvertial figure of Fuwa Kazuemon, the one holding the naginata. Kazuemon was in the service of the daimyo Asano but was dismissed before the incident that led to his enforced suicide. The website Samurai Archives has this to say on his career:

Fuwa Kazuemon was the son of Okano Jidayu and was adopted into the Fuwa family, retainers of the Asano clan in the Ako domain. No evidence was found that he married or produced children. He was dismissed from the Asano clan by Lord Asano Naganori in 1697 and thus became a ronin at age 27. As for the reasons for Fuwa's dismissal, it appears that he was in the habit of committing tsujigiri (Edo period thrill killing, striking down unarmed passersby at night). Fuwa was also noted for being a Kabukimono, elements of the samurai class that dressed up in “gaudy kimonos” and engaged in “wild antics”. Attacks by Kabukimono gangs against civilians were not uncommon during the Edo period.

As to what Fuwa did after his dismissal, this is unknown. One of the specifications of the Buke Shohatto that were in effect in 1683 stated: "...a man who has had a difference (literally hindrance) with his original lord is not to be taken into service by any other lord." So he would not have been able to obtain a position as a retainer by any other lord.

One can only speculate about the options open to a dismissed ronin during this time. Fuwa could have become an outlaw or he could have been hired by a yakuza gang as a bodyguard. However, for a man forbidden to take service under a different lord, his best hope would most likely have been to attempt to win reinstatement by his original clan lord.

He was accepted by the dissident Ronin after Asano’s suicide, and was part of the raid on Kira’s compound. Recent scholarship has cast doubt on Asano’s unblemished ‘nobility’ and the ‘honour’ of the entire episode of the 47 Ronin, something that Kuniyoshi alludes to in his great series of Ronin portraits from 1847.

This is a rare and hugely collectable triptych. Colour, condition and impression are all very fine, especially for an Osaka print of this date.

76cm x 39cm.