Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) A Present-Day Suikoden: Kawarazaki Gonjuro I as Narita no Shinzo, 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.
Narita no Shinzo has not survived as a traceable character. We see him here, with the striped rag covering his head and the full body tattoo of thunder clouds, storms and lightning. His clothing bears images of fierce dragons and we see him muzzle loading a flintlock, staring out of the picture, but this is the mie (the awkward theatrical squint) of Kawarazaki Gonjuro I… we are of course looking at an actor portraying an historical hero in the role of a hoodlum… all very confusing.
It's a lovely print - Kunisada’s late work is universally outstanding - and it is of course, a hugely collectible tattoo subject. The colour and impression are fine, the condition is very good overall.
Published by Iseya Kanekichi.
36 x 25 cm.