Kunisada, A Mirror of Loyalty and Filial Piety - Ushiwakamaru

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) A Mirror of Loyalty and Filial Piety: Ushiwakamaru, 1847. Oban.

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This terrific portrait of the great medieval Japanese general and commander Minamoto Yoshitsune is from a series of twenty-two actor portraits in mirrors made between 1847 and 1850. There are some complexities to the image; this was a period of intense political anxiety in Japan and the government were intent on censorship of anything that might either breed dissent or encourage what they saw as lax morals which might lead to unrest or rebellion. The consequence was a ban on kabuki theatre, actor portraits and some censorship of historical subjects. Series such as this one attempted to circumvent the laws by showing acceptable Tokugawa heroes but in reality, each hero is the likeness of a popular actor. Like painting Jonny Depp as Geronimo. The common practice of showing portraits reflected in mirrors was derived from the kabuki actor’s use of oval mirrors draped in cloth in the theatre dressing room. It also allowed the use of a pun in the title by implying another meaning for the word mirror or reflection.

The complete  title for the series is A Mirror of Past and Present Examples of Loyalty and Filial Piety (Konjaku Chuko Kagami). The title hams up the probity and morals of the subject by stressing the piety of the sitters. As said, the subject here is an actor - Iwai Kumesaburo III - playing the role of Onzoshi Ushiwakamaru, the juvenile name of the great general Minamoto Yoshitsune. The antiquarian Henri Joly had this to say about him:

YOSHITSUNE (MINAMOTO NO). One of the most famous warriors of Old Japan, Yoshitsune was the ninth son of Yoshitomo... He was born in 1159 (Heiji I), when his father had taken the side of the rebel, Fujiwara no Nobuyori, and was beaten. The flight of his mother and her subsequent fate has been related under her name. USHIWAKA (Young Ox, as he was then called) was sent by Kiyomori to the temple of Kurama Yama, in Kyoto, from where he escaped in 1174 (Shoan 4), with the help of a metal dealer, KICHIJI, to go to Mutsu to the house of the famous military chief, FUJIWARA xo HIDEHIRA, killing four robbers on the way and meeting with some adventures which inspired the dramatists. This early part of Yoshitsune's life is usually described in legend as having been spent amongst the Tengus, who taught him fencing, wrestling, and other physical attainments. He is often depicted fighting with them under the supervision of the Tengu King. About the same period he met the companion of his further adventures, BENKEI, on the GOJO bridge, and defeated him. In 1180 he left Hidehira, against the latter's advice, to join his half-brother, Yoritomo, who was mustering an army in Izu. The meeting took place on the Kise Gawa. In 1183 he was sent by Yoritomo, with Noriyori, to quell the rebellion of YOSHIXAKA, at which time took place the crossing of the Ujigawa by Takatsuna and Kagesuye. In the Gempei war, in the following year, he found the Taira fortified in the castle of ICHINOTANI, belonging to the son of Kiyomori, SHINCHUNAGON TOMOMORI, whilst the Emperor Antoku, with the Nii no Ama, had fled to Tsukushi (Kyushu). The castle of Ichinotani was facing the sea, and at the back of it was the mountain pass, HIYODORI GOVE, the slope of which was so steep that even apes were said never to descend it.

Yoshitsune was betrayed by his brother and later killed himself and his family at the siege of Koromogawa no tate. Despite being such a famed warrior, Yoshitsune is usually pictured as having a delicate feminine beauty as in this piece. A very nice print, one of the best designs in the series; colour, impression and condition all fine, minor trimming to the edges.

Published by Azumaya Daisuke.

35cm x 23.5cm.