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Utagawa Kunisada (Toyokuni III), 1786-1865
Things That Start with the Syllable Ki: Thirteen, Kikaigashima, the actors Nakamura Shikan IV as Shunkan and Ichikawa Shinsha I as Oyasu
(Ki no ji zukushi: Jusan, Kikaigashima- Shunkan, Nakamura Shikan; Oyasu, Ichikawa Shinsh)
signed Toyokuni hitsu, with carver's seal of Katada Chojiro, publisher's seal Torii San, Itosho (Itoya Shobei), and combined date and censor seal, Tori-juni, aratame (year of the rooster , 12th lunar month, examined), 1861
oban tate-e 14 3/8 by 9 7/8 in., 36.4 by 25 cm
This print is from a series that was published by a collaboration of 11 publishers, with 26 designs known to date, including the preface. The series is based on the Iroha- an ancient poem (first recorded in 1079) that famously utilizes each of the characters of the Japanese syllabary only once, and is thus used for organizing the order of syllables (in the same way that the Latin alphabet ordered starting with A, B, C...). While there are 47 syllables in the poem, the highest numbered extant design from the somewhat scarce series is only 44. This design uses the syllable number 13, Ki, as inspiration to reference Kikaigashima, also known as Devil's Island, famously the location of the disgraced Priest Shunkan's exile following his banishment as punishment for his role as a supporter of the Genji clan in 1177 in a failed coup against Taira no Kiyomori (1118-1181). In the 14th century epic account of those events, The Tale of Heike (Heike monogatari), Shunkan is never allowed to return from exile. The story was adapted to Noh theater in the play Shunkan, and later to bunraku and kabuki productions which expand considerably on Shunkan's adventures, including versions which feature his clandestine return in the service of the Genji clan.
In the kabuki variations of the story, Shunkan escapes the island to protect the Emperor's pregnant concubine Kogo no tsubone at a remote retreat in Horagadake where he enlists the help of a local midwife, Oyasu, who, unbeknownst to Shunkan, is fortunately loyal to the Genji cause. In this famous scene, Oyasu, played by the actor Ichikawa Shinsha I (Monnosuke V, 1821-78) attempts to show her trustworthiness by taking an oath on a pair of bronze mirrors, just as a samurai would take an oath on his sword. But Shunkan, portrayed by Nakamura Shikan IV (1830-1899) hesitates to allow her to do so, still fearful of revealing his secret. As he takes the mirrors away from the Oyasu, he catches a glimpse of himself and is so shocked by how much he has aged since he was exiled that he accidentally reveals his identity to her.
This pairing of actors is likely a mitate-e, an imaginary casting by Kunisada. Ichikawa Monnosuke V was a talented supporting actor who trained with two major onnagata (actors who specialized in female roles) lines, the Segawa and Iwai. Nakamura Shikan IV was a versatile actor who dominated the stage through the middle of the Meiji Period (1868-1912).
Basil Stewart, A Guide to Japanese Prints and Their Subject Matter, 1979, p. 311
Tim Clark & Osamu Ueda, The Actor's Image: Printmakers of the Katsukawa School, 1994, pp. 108 (on play)
Waseda University Theater Museum (enpaku.waseda.ac.jp), accession no. 006-3615