Kunisada, Ichikawa Danjuro as Jiraiya

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865)  Ichikawa Danjuro as Jiraiya, 1852. Oban.

We have tried in this show to gather together some outstanding theatre prints where the quality of the print… the preservation, the colour and the impression are particularly notable. There is little or no real scholarship on so many aspects of Japanese woodblock prints; the lack of cross-pollination between the academic and the maker here is a great loss. It is difficult then, to understand why some of these mid-century prints ‘sing’ so loudly… why the colour and the great vigour of the drawing leap from the page and why other sheets from the same or different decades are so limiting by comparison. The publishers of the late 1850’s had clearly assembled some of the great block cutters and and printers and it is in prints like this and the other prints in the show, where the pinnacle of theatre prints is reached.

It’s easy, as commentators have always done, to dismiss the prints of 1852 as overly commercial… as if quantity and quality are exclusive of each other. The fact is that as the mid-century arrived in Japan, a new and explosive culture of bourgeois possibility had fully taken control of the theatres, actors, writers and artists. This confidence and exuberance found its outlet in these astonishing, delicate, beautiful and confident woodblock prints. It was as if the artists, their block cutters, and publishers could do nothing wrong. There are many cultural points in history where this Esprit Nouveau (as it were) is visible.

The print is a portrait of the wildly popular kabuki actor Ichikawa Danjuro in the role of the toad magician Jiraiya. There’s no hint of 'toadiness' here… the print eschews the comical or the outlandish in favour of a contemplative and lavishly produced portrait of the actor.

The piece probably commemorates the premiere of Jiraiya Goketsu Monogatari at the Kawarazaki theatre in 1852 which had Danjuro VIII in the role of Jiraiya. In the legend, Jiraiya is a ninja who uses shapeshifting magic to transform himself into a gigantic toad. As the heir of a powerful clan in Kyushu of the same name, Jiraiya fell in love with Tsunade, a beautiful young maiden who had mastered slug magic. His arch-enemy was his one-time follower Yashagoro, later known as Orochimaru, a master of serpent magic. The story has become the subject of many prints, novels, dramas and more recently films. In Naruto, a popular manga and anime television series, Jiraiya appears as a ninja with the ability to summon giant toads. There is an entertaining 1920 film version available on Youtube, and the synopsis of the entire play is available at Kabuki21. The distinctive cuckoos in silhouette are a portent of the tragedies that ensue and appear in other prints in this show. 

This is a very brilliant theatre print, colour, impression and condition are all fine. Terrific burnished patterning to the black of the robes.  It is always a delight to discover these secret patterns buried within the fabric of the print. Deep embossing to the rays of the sunset.

There is an inferior version of the print at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Publisher: Wakasaya Yoichi (Jakurindo)

36.5 x 25.5 cm.