Kunichika, 100 Roles of Baiko - Mito Komon

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) One Hundred Roles of Baiko (Baiko Hyakushu no Uchi): Mito Komon, 1893. Deluxe Oban.

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An unusual and difficult subject to untangle in this very lovely print from the great series of Baiko portraits from 1893. The subject is the famous daimyo of Japan, Tokugawa Mitsukini, better known as Mito Komon. This usual attribution is a little lazy; the character of Mito Komon is played by Ichikawa Danjuro and appears in the upper cartouche as the supporting role. Kunichika uses the same design in one of his famous prints from the One Hundred Roles of Ichikawa Danjuro.  The part of the Ronin in the main print is played by Baiko and is unknown. Komon Mitsukuni, a prominent daimyo (lord) of the seventeenth century, was responsible for assembling the first thorough history of Japan, but more famous for the many and popular fictionalised accounts that appeared in the Edo period, portraying him as an adventurer and fighter of evils and demons. This tradition continues in the TV series Mito Komon one of the longest running series on Japanese television.

I suspect that the ronin in the main picture is being pursued by Mito Komon and the plot will inevitably involve the significance of the demon mask the actor carries in his hands.

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 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 one hundred 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.

A very fine print from the series, colour, condition and impression are all fine.

Published by Fukuda Kumajiro.

38cm x 26 cm.