Kunisada, Ichikawa Danjuro as Jiraiya Casting a Spell

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Ichikawa Danjuro as Jiraiya Casting a Spell, 1852. Oban.

Click here for a detailed enlargement.

This is a lovely piece of art. A very fine print from one of Kunisada’s most prolific years. It’s easy, as commentators have always done, to dismiss the prints of 1852 as overly commercial… as if quantity and quality are exclusive of each other. The fact is that as the mid-century arrived in Japan, a new and explosive culture of bourgeoise possibility had fully taken control of the the theatres, actors, writers and the artists. This confidence and exuberance found its outlet in these astonishing, delicate, beautiful and confident woodblock prints. It as if the artists, their block cutters, and publishers could do nothing wrong. There are many cultural points in history where this Esprit Nouveau (as it were) is visible.

The print is a portrait of the wildly popular kabuki actor Ichikawa Danjuro in the role of the toad magician Jiraiya. There’s no hint of 'toadiness' here… the print eschews the comical or the outlandish in favour of a contemplative and lavishly produced portait of the actor. We have included it in this exhibition partly because of the great beauty of the design and colouration on the kimono. Here Kunisada has deftly illustrated a coiled Chinese dragon, whirlpools and thunderclouds to evoke the incantation of magical spells.

The piece probably commemorates the premiere of Jiraiya Goketsu Monogatari at the Kawarazaki theatre in 1852 which had Danjuro VIII in the role of Danjuro. In the legend, Jiraiya is a ninja who uses shapeshifting magic to tranform himself into a gigantic toad. As the heir of a powerful clan in Kyushu of the same name, Jiraiya fell in love with Tsunade, a beautiful young maiden who had mastered slug magic. His arch-enemy was his one-time follower Yashagoro, later known as Orochimaru, a master of serpent magic. The story has become the subject of many prints, novels, dramas and more recently films. In Naruto, a popular manga and anime television series, Jiraiya appears as a ninja with the ability to summon giant toads. Alongside the series' versions of Tsunade and Orochimaru, he is part of a trio of legendary ninja known as the Densetsu no Sannin ("Legendary Three Ninja”).

The print is beautifully coloured and produced, with rich bokashi shading, overprinting and embossing. Colour, condition and impression are all fine.

26cm x 36cm.