Kunisada, Actors at the 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road - Kusatsu

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Actors at the Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido Road (Tokaido gojusan tsugi no uchi): Kusatsu, 1852. Oban.

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This is the great Tokaido Road series of 1852 that Kunisada produced, principally to avoid aggressive censorship by the authorities against kabuki theatre and the 'decadent' arts. Print artists during the mid-century were plagued by legislation forbidding the naming and depiction of actors. Artists such as Kunisada who made their living from the theatre looked for increasingly complicated work-rounds… producing a landscape series with figures (unnamed) was one such strategy.  Kunisada was apparently inspired by the actor Onoe Kikugoro III who walked the route, performing ad hoc dramas at different stations along the way. Kunisada used landscape prints from Hiroshige’s Hoeido edition of 1831 as the backdrops, a practice quite common at the time. In front of these borrowed scenes he depicted living and dead actors in scenes from plays that sometimes relate to the landscape or station depicted in the background. The series was an instant success: songs comparing Kunisada to great culinary delicacies and calling him the 'Flower of Edo' were composed in his honour. Other series followed, notably one on the same theme set against Kisokaido Road backgrounds.

In this case the background is taken directly from  the Kusatsu Station print (no 53), from the little known series by Hiroshige; the so-called Aritaya Edition of 1844 - 1848. In front of this borrowed backdrop (one gets the feeling that Kunisada did NOT travel), Kunisada has placed a portrait of the actor Arashi Kichisaburo III as Oniwakamaru in kumadori make up. Stories about Benkei's birth vary considerably. One sees him as the offspring of a temple god. Many give him the attributes of a demon, a monster child with wild hair and long teeth. In his youth, Benkei may have been called Oniwaka, ("demon/ogre child"), and there are many famous ukiyo-e works themed on Oniwakamaru and his adventures. He joined the monastery at an early age and like other monks, Benkei was trained in the use of the weapons. At the age of seventeen he became a member of a sect of mountain ascetics who were recognisable by their black caps. Japanese prints often show Benkei wearing this cap.   Benkei is said to have posted himself at Gojo Bridge in Kyoto, where he disarmed every passing swordsman, eventually collecting 999 swords. On his 1000th duel, Benkei was defeated by Minamoto no Yoshitsune, a son of the warlord Minamoto no Yoshitomo. Henceforth, he became a retainer of Yoshitsune and fought with him in the Genpei War against the Taira clan. Yoshitsune is credited with most of the Minamoto clan's successes against the Taira, especially the final naval battle of Dan-no-ura.  After their ultimate triumph, however, Yoshitsune's elder brother Minamoto no Yoritomo turned against him.

A fine and very dramatic print. All of the elements are well realised, despite the potential clumsiness of the concept.

Colour, condition and impression are all fine.

Publisher: Iseya Kanekichi.

Carver: Horitake.

36 x 25 cm.