Kunisada, Ichikawa Danzo Subduing a Giant Catfish

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865)  Ichikawa Danzo Subduing a Giant Catfish, c1820. Oban.

Click here for a detailed enlargement.

A bit the star of this collection of prints, this piece. For the specialist collector of Namazu-e, this is a real treat. Namazu-e is a genre of Japanese print that shows giant catfish (Namazu), often being quelled, subdued or implored with by Edo townspeople.

The website Pink Tentacle  devotes an informative page to these genre pieces:

In November 1855, the Great Ansei Earthquake struck the city of Edo (now Tokyo), claiming 7,000 lives and inflicting widespread damage. Within days, a new type of colour woodblock print known as namazu-e ("catfish pictures") became popular among the residents of the shaken city. These prints featured depictions of mythical giant catfish (namazu) who, according to popular legend, caused earthquakes by thrashing about in their underground lairs. In addition to providing humour and social commentary, many prints claimed to offer protection from future earthquakes. The popularity of namazu-e exploded, and as many as 400 different types became available within weeks. However, the namazu-e phenomenon abruptly ended two months later when the Tokugawa government, which ordinarily maintained a strict system of censorship over the publishing industry, cracked down on production. Only a handful are known to survive today.

Namazu are normally kept under control by the god Kashima using a large rock known as kaname-ishi. The Great Ansei Earthquake of 1855 is said to have occurred when Kashima went out of town and left Ebisu (god of fishing and commerce) in charge.

Large gourds are also used as a method of quelling the giant fish. Obviously, the insatiable appetite of the kabuki theatre meant that plays and dances were also devoted to the subject. Some of these plays concerned ordinary townsmen (as in this piece) confronted with the dilemma of containing the Namazu or suffering at the hands of various demons.  What makes this print so rare and so interesting is the date. The print is from the early 1820’s and hence pre-dates the genre begun in 1855 by several decades. This makes the piece very nearly unique and unrecorded, really quite a find.
Colour, condition and impression are really outstanding for such a rare piece. Full size and untrimmed.

38cm x 25cm.