Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) The Sixty-nine Stations of the Kisokaido Road #40: Suhara, 1852. Oban.
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Another Kunisada print from his hugely successful and prolific year of 1852. This hand crafted and extremely gory print is from a very fine series indeed that makes a laughably poor attempt to illustrate the post stations of the Kisokaido Road whilst actually presenting a sumptuous and thrilling series of actor portraits in role. A more famous 'Kisokaido' series was produced along similar lines by Kunisada’s friend and rival, Kuniyoshi in the following year. The two series are very similar and confusion can arise for the unwary!
In the Sengoku period (15th - 17th century) the shogunate developed five routes crossing the principal districts of Japan. The two most famous routes connected the government capital in Edo (Tokyo) with the Imperial capital in Kyoto. The inland, mountainous route was called the Nakasendo (the Kisokaido) and the coastal route was called the Tokaido. Each of these roads had post stations along the entire length - 53 on the Tokaido and 69 on the Kisokaido. Several artists developed a landscape genre illustrating the post stations of each route. Hokusai is perhaps the earliest in 1804, and Hiroshige the most famous. Hiroshige produced several series from the 1830’s onwards.
In 1852, Kunisada was commissioned to produce a series on the Tokaido Road using modified versions of the earlier Hiroshige series with actor portraits in the foreground. The prohibition on naming actors in woodblock prints meant that the roles only were identified. The series proved to be so popular that Kunisada quickly conceived of a second series based on the Kisokaido. This very fine series is less well known and scarcer in number than the original Tokaido series.
In this outrageous print, Kunisada shows the tragic antihero Gonpachi. Gonpachi was a Ronin - a leaderless samurai and street tough. He rescues a girl from the inn of some bandits in return for her warning him that he is to be robbed that night. Later, in the Yoshiwara district he finds the same girl, the daughter of humble grocers, now working as a prostitute in order to keep her elderly parents. Gonpachi, unable to help her this time, turns to crime and the play shows how he loses his chivalrous spirit and becomes a murderer - robbing for money to visit the brothel where he sees his lover. Unable to live with himself he commits suicide. Kunisada produced a near identical version of this print for his Tokaido Road series of 1860, complete with hand applied gore as in this piece.
This is a great print… 'singing' with colour and and depth. The tragic Gonpachi is shown played by the actor Morita Kanya XI, clutching a water dipper and plunging a sword into his own entrails. Colour and impression are superb, there are some minor marks and flaws but the condition overall is very good. The blood at the lower edge is hand applied, subtle shomenzuri is applied to the robes in contrast to the brushy outline and embossed collar. Embossing to the white robes to the lower edge. The elaborate cartouche in the upper left illustrates the paraphernalia of the role on the kabuki stage.
Published by Enshuya Hikobei.
Signed Toyokuni ga.
36 x 25 cm.