Kuniyoshi, Three Actors Performing Date Kurabe Uwasa no Sayaate

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861)  The Actors Sawamura Chojuro V, Ichikawa Ebizo V, and Onoe Baiko IV performing Date Kurabe Uwasa no Sayaate, 1851. Oban Triptych.

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This magnificent triptych by Kuniyoshi is another rendering of the notorious Yoshiwara district of Edo (Tokyo). The Yoshiwara was a gated community, walled in and enclosed and guarded at the entrance and exits. Although not above or outside the law, there is a definite sense of there being an altered reality, at least from contemporary accounts. The Yoshiwara was in some respects no different from the Reeperbahn in Hamburg or how Soho was in London. The difference being that in the rigidly controlled society of Edo Japan, the distinctions between the area and the wider society were more extreme. In the Yoshiwara there were countless brothels and prostitutes, also gambling, inns, tea rooms and drinking dens. It was also famous for crime and murderous or violent encounters, as in this scene from the kabuki drama, Date Kurabe Uwasa no Sayaate.

In the left hand sheet, the disgraced samurai Nagoya Sanza is surprised to encounter his sworn enemy, Fuwa Banzaemon one night in the Yoshiwara after their scabbards brushed in passing. Sanza was banished from his clan after a valuable scroll in his care was stolen by the evil Banzaemon. At left, Sanza recoils as he recognizes his foe, lifting his hat for a closer look as he grips the handle of his sword. He wears a blue kimono patterned with swallows flying in the rain. On the right, Banzaemon leans back with an angry grimace, pushing up his own hat. His black kimono features a design of red lightning and swirling thunderclouds. In the centre, Sanza's loyal maid, Okuni, lifts her lantern to light the scene. A low bamboo fence encloses a garden behind them filled with blossoming shrubs and flowering cherry trees.

Kuniyoshi was not very prolific in the theatre print genre and this is a very fine piece of work indeed, with its rhythm of patterns and blossoms and its seried rank of paper lanterns. Colour, condition and impression are all fine.

Published by Ebi-ya Rinnosuke.