Kunichika, 100 Roles of Baiko - Onoe Kikugoro V as Igami no Gonta

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) One Hundred Roles of Baiko (Baiko Hyakushu no Uchi): Onoe Kikugoro V as Igami no Gonta, 1893. Deluxe Oban.

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Sebastian Izzard described Kunisada’s late actor portrait series of okubi-e as ‘a monument to his career’. It is justifiable to say that the two series One Hundred Roles of Baiko and its companion One Hundred Roles of Ichikawa Danjuro X are Kunichika’s equivalent late, and crowning achievement. This magnificent series, of which this is one of the best and the richest designs, conveys Kunichika’s mastery of role and character depiction better than any other. It prompted the celebrated Kunichika scholar, Kojima Usui to acclaim Kunichika as ‘the premier figure since Sharaku in actor portraiture’. A decent Sharaku starts at around $50,000 - luckily for us a decent Kunichika from this series is considerably more affordable.

Kunichika was an aficionado and intimate of all the great kabuki actors of the day. The actor Onoe Kikugoro V was one such a friend. He was a hugely successful actor who took the stage name Baiko from the pen name of his ancestor Onoe Kikugoro, who died in 1783. In 1893 Kunichika was commissioned by the publisher Fukuda Kumajiro to produce 100 prints celebrating the roles of the great actor. The series (like the Danjuro) was printed on the finest paper and used all of the deluxe techniques available to artists at the time; the surfaces are sprinkled with mica (encrusted in this case) and lavishly embossed and burnished with deep reflective blacks and shomenzuri patterns.

The prints are designed to an identical format. The bulk of the sheet shows Baiko in a typical scene from the role; often the pose is a dramatic and emotional moment in the drama. Baiko was a commoner and espoused the popular roles of the time that showed the travails of the common Edo townsman. Many of the prints also show roles that no longer use traditional scenes or props… some of the characters sport modern, western cropped hair styles, known as zangiri mono or derive from dramas that illustrate characters from the Meiji revolution. This flexibility made Baiko a popular and modern actor of his time.

The upper part of the sheet is devoted to a scene from the particular play, featuring a ‘supporting actor’. Within that division there is a further sub-division describing the play and the plot, and in black on the far right is the series title.

The character in this great print is a typical Baiko role, that of Igami no Gonta, in a fictional episode from the great medieval epics that describe the skirmishes between the Heike and the Minamoto clans. This part of the kabuki drama is the famous Act III, which is domestic and has nothing really to do with the great warring families of the past. Igami no Gonta is a dissolute young man, banned from his parents' house by his father for gambling. He sneaks in, in order to inveigle his mother into giving him his inheritance to cover gambling debts. She does so, but he sees  his father approach and shoves the gold coins into a rice tub and leaves. His father has with him the severed head of a Heike retainer. On hearing that their house is to be searched, he too dumps the head into another rice container. Gonta returns stealthily to recover his money but - of course - takes the wrong container. What follows is, as always with kabuki, extremely complicated; nevertheless the scene climaxes with the father killing Gonta and Gonta, in a moving speech, declaring that his actions were all motivated by a love of his parent and a desire to prove himself. Gonta is always shown wearing the rough grey check of the commoner and carrying the wooden rice bucket.  The role in the top cartouche is played by Kakitsu Bando.

A truly great Meiji print. The rich crust of mica that forms the background is a deliberate reference to the great and by this time, revered Sharaku. Colour, condition and impression are all fine, the print is full size and untrimmed with publishers details down the left side.

Published by Fukuda Kumajiro.

38cm x 26 cm.