Kunichika, Great Heroes in Robber Plays

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) Actors in Theatrical Hits as Great Heroes in Robber Plays, 1864. Oban.

Pictured here is the kabuki actor Nakamura Shikan IV from Kunichika’s series of Robber plays. This print is sometimes ascribed to the character of Shichu Tanzaemon. It is more likely that the print represents one of the great robber heroes, Ishikawa Goemon from the play Sanmon Gosan no Kiri. 

Ishikawa Goemon, the king of thieves sits on a temple balcony and delivers one of the most famous lines in kabuki:

"A peerless view. Magnificent. The spring view is worth a thousand gold pieces, or so they say, but 'tis too little, too little."

A hawk settles on the balcony delivering a message regarding the murder of his father by the gangster Hisayoshi. Later in the play, Goeman and his foe meet in the temple precincts The thief recognizes his sworn enemy and quickly flings a dagger at him. Hisayoshi parries the attack with the handle of the basin dipper. Both actors strike their final pose: Hisayoshi challenges Goeman, who has one foot on the balcony guardrail, one hand on his sword and a menacing face, ending one of the shortest but most spectacular kabuki plays.

This is such a dramatic and effective print. It pictures the final scene; the hand of Hisayoshi is raised at the bottom of the picture while above him towers the figure of Goeman, sword in hand, his face screwed in menace, the thrown dagger in mid air.

 A fine print and extraordinary design.

This is a fine impression of the first state, strong colours, some surface soiling otherwise of good condition, an excellent print.

This series is illustrated on page 74 of Amy Reigle Newland’s Time Past and Time Present, Images of a Forgotten Master,  Hotei Publishing, 1999.